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Increasing the Effectiveness of Social Programs through Big Data

Lawrence Hibbert and Dr. Randal Pinkett on big data

Two of the founders of BCT Partners, Dr. Randal Pinkett and Mr. Lawrence Hibbert, sat down to talk about the role that big data will play in the future of social programs.

Q. Looking ahead, how do you see the funding of social programs changing?

A. Funding has become much more competitive and budgets are being scrutinized more closely. Funders want to know whether their money is delivering the desired outcomes and if it’s making a tangible impact. They are demanding more quantifiable and qualifiable accountability which is a positive trend because it means that funding can be better allocated to things that really work.

Q. Is it your belief that the effectiveness of social programs will be measured differently in the future?

A. Absolutely. In the past, funders assessed program performance based on outputs, not outcomes. So, they were looking to see if the program was delivered to a certain number of people, or if a training program reached a certain number of participants etc. and those were definitely easier things to measure. However, those outputs didn’t show whether a program was truly successful. Training completion does not necessarily mean the participant utilized those new skills to increase his/her income, for example. Outcomes can be much harder to quantify and qualify but are a far more valuable way to evaluate success.

Another method for determining the efficacy of programs is Random Control Trials (RCTs) and that has been the gold standard. Much of public policy has been determined by the results of RCTs. However, the field is changing dramatically, and data analytics is now being used to reduce costs, accelerate efficiency, and scaffold the decision-making process more effectively to determine what is truly working.

Q. Do you think that the leaders that are making these decisions are going to be able to interpret the data in a meaningful way or will they need to hire data analysts for that?

A. Most RCTs have been completed by third parties and so the data analysis can be done by third parties as well. However, government agencies and foundations will need leaders, who along with their partners, can interpret the results and make meaningful decisions accordingly. It doesn’t require data analysts in-house, but it will require a shift in thinking and evaluation techniques.

Q. How does analytics start to shape programs proactively rather than retroactively?

A. The beauty of BCT’s Precision Analytics (a more “precise” method than either predictive or prescriptive analytics) is that we can continually refine programs and improve them based on a very granular understanding of what works and for whom. This type of analysis, made possible through machine learning, will allow data to be taken from numerous sources and be applied to determine the best implementation strategy in order for successful outcomes to be more likely. It is also more precise in that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, a foster care program could start to make placement decisions through a more customized approach using data to determine how that individual’s unique circumstances will determine the likelihood of them achieving permanency. For example, someone who does not have a strong support system might need more services after placement in order to help them succeed long-term in achieving permanency.

Q. How long do you think it will be before data analytics is used to evaluate all social programs?

A. We are already seeing a tremendous amount of interest and a real shift to this type of analysis. In fact, during the Obama administration, they set up a commission focused specifically on evidence-based policy making. As with most changes, we will see a group of early adopters recognizing the value before it takes hold across the board. That said, this new paradigm is here to stay.

Q. How is BCT Partners adapting to this changing world?

A. BCT is at the forefront of this seismic shift and we hired a pioneer in this field, Mr. Pete York, to bring this expertise to our clients. Pete has dedicated his 20-year career to leveraging big data to create precision analytics models to aid nonprofits, foundations and government agencies in improving their performance. He is a highly respected national spokesperson for social impact measurement and has also served as an advisor to prestigious institutions, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, on the use of big data for evaluation.

Through a combination of Pete’s background in Precision Analytics and BCT’s long-standing social sector expertise, we are uniquely positioned to improve outcomes for our clients. There are several firms that have data analytics capabilities, but very few have the social sector experience and cultural competence that is resident at BCT. We can put the data in context and interpret it in a culturally competent way. BCT is also uniquely positioned to use that data to help improve the capacity of an organization. We can develop and implement change management techniques that will translate into sustainable long-term programs that work.

Q. Which of your clients have shown an interest?

A. To date, we have had interest from many of our clients in areas including juvenile justice, mental health, homelessness, child welfare, STEM and workforce development. One of our recent projects has been to help Casey Family Programs to identify the factors that predict how to be better guarantee permanent placement for foster children.

We have also worked with the Silver Springs Martin Luther School who aid children with mental health issues. We are helping them identify treatment programs that will be the most effective in preventing recurrences of children returning to a mental health facility. Pete has written a paper about this work which can be found here (link to Scattergood Paper).

Q. Are you optimistic about the future of funding in the social sector?

A. We are very optimistic because we are finally able to validate what works and what doesn’t and use those insights to help people get the individualized support that they need. The social sector will be able to invest in the things that work and help more people live healthy and productive lives as a result. Our whole team at BCT feels privileged to be part of creating a more just and equitable society.

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