The blog of the Urban Institute
July 6, 2016

Long-term change takes real-time data

President Obama has said it many times: a child’s course in life should not be determined by the zip code in which he or she is born.

In keeping with that philosophy, the Obama administration has invested millions of federal dollars in initiatives designed to interrupt the status quo for communities facing seemingly intractable challenges, such as failing education systems and growing crime and violence. These place-based initiatives, like Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods, seek to raise the quality of life for all residents.

These initiatives measure success by indicators that speak to community-wide conditions, like high school graduation rates and crime rates. Measuring success at this level is important; it holds initiatives accountable for improving the whole community, not just certain neighborhoods or particular schools.

But change at this level also takes time—5, 10, or even 15 years. People implementing the programs and policies that drive this change are focused on long-term results but must use real-time data to direct their work. Sometimes called case management data, these real-time data are generated by tracking the people directly served by community programs, the types of services provided, and the ways people are better off (or not) after participating.

Using these data helps answer important questions, like whether those who need the programs the most actually participate and whether programs produce the intended positive outcomes. It’s a real-time reality check on whether the day-to-day work on programs and policies will lead to long-term community change. Answering these questions regularly is the foundation of a performance measurement or continuous quality improvement process. Without these data and a process to use data, communities risk facing the same challenges year after year without knowing why things aren’t improving.

To help initiatives start collecting and using the data needed to achieve results, we created a brief virtual training video that explains the concept in more detail and demonstrates the process with a specific example.

We hope this video is useful to communities engaged in this work. For more information and examples, download the accompanying guidance on using case management data to improve community change initiatives.

Changing communities is complex work, but it doesn’t have to be done in the dark. Real-time case management data can direct the best path forward.

Children are seen working on computers in the after school program at the Mayfair Mansions Community Center on March 18, 2015 in Washington, D.C. DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) founded in 2008 and operational since 2013, has brought together public and charter schools, community and faith-based organizations as a way to end generational poverty and ensure that children complete their education through college. Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.