The Power of Data
August 21, 2019 | Erin Wicke Dankert
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
I can vividly remember Uncle Ben sharing this wisdom in the movie Spider-Man. While I may not be a superhero buff, this phrase rings true to me. When I’m working on something important, I sometimes hear it quietly in the back of my mind, reminding me of the importance of considering the consequences—both positive and negative—of what may happen to individuals and families because of my work.
We’re living in an era of “data-driven” everything. From the ads we see on our Facebook timelines to decisions about health care treatment, data has taken a key role in guiding the way we react and respond to uncertainty. In my role at NCCD, I regularly work with social services agencies challenged with the decision of how to target limited resources. For many of these agencies, NCCD develops an actuarial risk assessment to classify individuals or families based on shared characteristics with others who have a low, moderate, or high rate of future system involvement.
For example, in child welfare, our risk tool classifies families by whether they share characteristics with those who are more or less likely to have another child welfare investigation or substantiation in the future. The idea is that the risk assessment can help to identify families and individuals at highest risk of future involvement so that they can be connected to services that may help to protect children from future harmful events.
Next week, I will be presenting at the Data for Impact Conference in Madison as part of Wisconsin’s Forward Festival. My interactive session will focus on actuarial risk assessments and how agencies can use these assessments to help guide decisions. Participants will learn some key concepts about what makes a well-functioning actuarial risk assessment and gain a better understanding of how to move beyond making decisions based only on what “the data tell us.”
Understanding the nuts and bolts of how data can be used to create an actuarial risk assessment is only one piece of the puzzle; to get the full picture, other key principles must be considered, such as the purpose of the tool, the validity, reliability, and utility of the tool. And of extreme importance is considering how equitably the tool works, particularly for populations that may be unfairly over-represented in human service systems.
The amount of data available and our ability to use that data gives us great power. It allows us to develop important insights that can guide action. But with that power comes the responsibility to remain steadfast in our values and our mission to promote just and equitable systems.
Erin Wicke Dankert is an analytics program manager at NCCD. She will present “Exploring the Concept and Benefits of Risk Assessment” at the Data for Impact Conference in Madison on August 26. Learn more about the conference here.