Two years ago, my colleague, Sade Adeeyo, and I were in the initial stages of launching our community-based participatory research project in the DC Housing Authority’s Benning Terrace development. We were holding monthly meetings with community residents who were working with us to plan our project Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS). PASS focuses on topics that can be uncomfortable to discuss and problems that are so prevalent that they are often normalized, such as harassment or victim blaming people who have experienced sexual assault.
PASS is a comprehensive, community-based program model that educates and trains youth and adults in sexual health and safety. The overarching goal is to take sexual education beyond reproductive health, to challenge unhealthy behaviors and cultural or environmental norms at the community level. This is accomplished through curricula for adolescent girls, boys, and their care givers; connecting participants to health resources; and training community members as co-facilitators of the program to make the content more relatable and sustainable.
At one of our first meetings with the residents who had volunteered to help build the PASS program, we decided that presenting descriptive information about the community’s current sexual health climate—data we had drawn from the Census—would be an effective way to ground our discussion that night and provide context to our work together.
The first data point was about HIV rates: 177.9 persons per 100,000 DC residents, compared to 19.1 per 100,000 in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. We were caught off guard when several community members passionately questioned what we had just shared, wondering where we had gotten the information and asking whether we had made it up. They were offended by what the data suggested about their community and suspicious of our motives for being in their community in the first place. Their concerns were valid, but we were unprepared for this response
A few months later, we returned with an entirely different approach. We decided to hold a “Data Walk”—a method often used by teachers to bring data to life by seeing it visually and discussing it as a group. We organized an event for community residents, service providers, government agencies, policy makers, and researchers. We wanted to review the information together, interpret what the data meant, and discuss how it could better inform our joint project. This time, we considered our various audiences, selected data points that demonstrated both the community’s strengths and challenges, provided an explanation of all of our data sources, presented the data in various formats (text and graphics), and provided structured space for discussion. This format of reviewing data was more engaging to participants, less intimidating, and more focused on the group discussion and each person’s lived experience, rather than simply expecting participants to accept the data at face value. As a result, we were able to move the discussion forward, gaining the community’s trust and buy-in for our joint work, and gaining valuable insight for planning the next phases of our project as a team.
Engaging the community as a research partner is something the public health field has been championing for years through a community-based participatory research model, which often involves residents in defining research agendas, research design, data collection, and developing and testing interventions for their own communities. Still, public policy research is often carried out without the input of the communities at the heart of the debate, and research findings (and the analysis process!) are rarely shared with the community stakeholders who are intended to benefit and who know their communities best.
Developing new and innovative strategies to demystify research and enable neighborhood residents, practitioners, and policy makers to use data to effect community change has the potential to strengthen the rigor, relevance, and reach of research and policy with contextualized information from the field.
We have outlined the process we used in a guidebook and instructional video anyone can use to plan a Data Walk. We developed our guide book as a tool for others who would also like to:
- Share key data and findings with community residents and program participants
- Ensure a more robust analysis and understanding of the data
- Help inform better programming and policies to address both the strengths and the needs of a particular community or population
- Inspire individual and collective action among community members
At the Urban Institute, Data Walks have proven to be a useful and effective tool, one that we continue to refine and reframe for various projects, audiences, and communities. Data Walks are an excellent way to get extra mileage out of existing data, make data more accessible to those without research expertise, and improve the analysis and understanding of what the data tell us. Data Walks serve as a launching point to improve policies and services while empowering communities and increasing resident engagement.