How we approach 'missing data' could unlock social and economic injustice
Our Chief Insight Architect, Rosario Piazza, shares why a new insight and analysis infrastructure could help improve how we understand inequalities, and how we can solve them.
To improve JRF’s ability to produce more and better data on ‘what’s going on now’, and recommend timely action, we first need to explore why the data we use is falling short.
JRF, and other data analysts, have a problem. We struggle to measure the extent and impact of social and economic inequalities, and lack understanding of what they actually mean in practical terms, which limits our ability to solve them. Our understanding of their material, social and emotional aspects is limited by the availability, granularity and timeliness of data, both quantitative and qualitative.
It’s a problem bigger than just JRF, or the charity sector, and it has two key aspects:
- what we do with existing data;
- the things we can’t do because of missing data.
In her blog ‘Measuring Chaos’, Rosie Fogden lays out why and how we should be better at using current data, including linking datasets, but it’s a desire to solve the second point here that’s driving the work on JRF’s new insight and analysis infrastructure, as outlined by our Director of Insight and Policy, Graeme Cooke, in his previous blog.
Four main ambitions guide us:
- To become a powerhouse of timely and accessible insights on social and economic injustice in the UK.
- To challenge and improve society’s understanding of social and economic inequalities.
- To create space and opportunities for people with lived experience to contribute directly to our goal.
- To explore ways in which we can collaborate with others to enhance data, tools and approaches.
Let’s look at these four ambitions, and the problems that lie behind them, one by one:
First, the issue of timeliness. Data released by government departments is undoubtably a valuable source of information. However, by the time official statistics are released, they lack the timeliness necessary to tackle current inequalities. The data is historical information describing people and circumstances occurred in the past, and it does not speak to the ‘current picture’ experienced by people across the country.
Whilst there is arguably value in being able to monitor how hardship and inequalities have been affecting people, there’s not much we can do with it to inform our decision-making in the present.
At its best, government statistics can only inform reactive interventions and grant-making. In its current format, and due to the frequency of releases, existing evidence of social and economic inequalities provides a series of retrospective pictures. There is a persistent lack of ‘leading indicators’ that can be translated into actionable insights. This is quite crucial to our intention of what the infrastructure could achieve, as we believe that insight generation, as opposed to descriptive, retrospective information, could effectively support the charity sector and, beyond that, policy and decision-makers to shift from reactive decision-making and interventions, to adaptive programming and grant-making.
As it currently stands, data is merely useful for monitoring, reporting and trend analysis, rather than insight generation. The way this is currently aggregated leaves little room for manipulation, micro analysis or the generation of target insights that can inform how to best support people and communities affected in different ways by hardship and inequalities. It also makes it impossible to establish causation and correlation, as data is often fragmented, it refers to different points in time, and cannot be linked or compared without requiring a good degree of skills, time and resources.
Scarcity of equity and diversity
Secondly, the scarcity of equity and diversity in data represents another crucial limitation. It is very difficult to get a clear sense of how different communities experience social and economic injustice, and how different identities and characteristics result in diverse forms of hardship and inequalities. It’s a difficult barrier to overcome, but not impossible.
We should ask ourselves: have we explored all sources of information that would improve our ability to have eyes and ears on the ground? Are we so comfortable with the way we (think) we understand hardship and inequalities that we are unwilling to explore uncharted territories? You’re probably thinking – there’s so much data already available, but little time, skills and resources to be able to do more with it. Do we really need more data? Fair point, I’d say, but doesn’t most data suffer from the limitations described above? Isn’t the lack of time, skills and resources supporting the case for a new infrastructure? An insight infrastructure could turn the tide. It could contribute to challenging and improving our understanding of hardship and inequalities through the generations of new and better data and indicators. By harnessing new and unused source of information, we aim to reflect the social, economic and bio-diversity of the country, as well as identifying new leading indicators resulting from triangulation of data points that have never been used before.
However, the infrastructure we are proposing is not all about new data. There is a plethora of information on the areas and people we care about (for example work, housing, debt, families, income, and so on). This is certainly the case for commercial and consumer focused organisations. So why aren’t we able to do more with what we have? The problem is that it is really hard to connect data across specific issue areas (either by actually aggregating data or even just putting it side by side), and to then stand back to see the bigger picture describing what’s really going on.
Thirdly, what we are trying to do is not just about making the best and most positively impactful decisions informed by a robust, useful and accessible infrastructure, but it’s about doing this responsibly. To do so, we will need to ensure that people with lived experience have a say, are listened to, and accurately reflected in the information used to generate insights and influence policies.
Finally, it is not a solo mission we’re embarking on, it’s a collaborative endeavour. We know that to build an infrastructure that is sustainable, useful and relevant, we need to start by building the pillars that will sustain it. These will sit on top of the foundations we have already laid, one of which is simply adopting an infrastructure mindset. The pillars are a series of initiatives consisting of new and powerful insights we will generate ourselves in addition to the data, insights and approaches we will develop in partnership with others, and the initiatives created by others that we will support and fund.
So, this is an open call - to help us create the resources that can accelerate a shift from reactive to adaptive programming, grant-giving and decision-making. If you’re interested in working with us, we’re looking for partners in two areas:
- Developing models and tools to provide timely insight on poverty issues to realise our ambition to create an evidence-led, insight-generating infrastructure that can shed light on current social and economic injustice in the UK, by harnessing the potential of a range of data sources and digital capability.
- Ecosystem mapping and external engagement: to improve our understanding of the current landscape and stakeholders we want to support, work with, influence and inspire.
This open call is now closed.