Blog Post

Building Integrated People Systems

On October 15th, I presented on a panel about the report
On October 15th, I presented on a panel about the report "Technology for Civic Data Integration" at the MetroLab Summit, with co-contributors and primary author Natalie Evans Harris
Source: "Panel on Civic Data Integration" by Stefania Di Mauro-Nava is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

I recently had the privilege to contribute to the report Technology for Civic Data Integration with my peers produced through a collaboration of 4 fabulous organizations (see who below). In it are 7 considerations to take into account when planning for an integrated data system.

While not explicitly stated in the report, my takeaway from it is that data systems are actually people systems. Put plainly, an integration must support a real human need and real humans need to implement integrated data systems. When we fail to recognize this, integration projects are doomed to failure.

Integrated data systems are actually integrated people systems

You can read more about all the considerations in the paper (I highly recommend you do if you’re working on an integrated data problem), but I’m going to call out the two most directly about people:

  • Staffing Expertise. This is all about having the right people needed to do the job. This is consideration 0 in the report; it is so important we’re using zero-based numbering! (that’s a nerdy programming joke)

  • Data Access & Dissemination. Consideration 6 is really about the human need. How are we supporting the people that need to use the data to make decisions or take action?

Every other consideration in the paper happens in the context of the virtuous cycle of continuous improvement. Human needs should help uncover gaps, gaps should be filled by people, people should help scope and deploy technology, repeat. Getting the people considerations right can help with all the others.

Practical tips to get there

But chanting people, people, people is all well and good, but where does one start? My tips for developing an integrated people system include:

  • Define where you’re trying to go. This could be a major initiative, a project, a strategy; basically it’s important to find your north star. But don’t get stuck. As Steven Bungay advises in the Art of Action, “You cannot create perfect plans, so do not attempt to do so. Do not plan beyond the circumstances you can foresee.” For more on making plans connected to strategy, I recommend picking up the Art of Action.
  • Understand the people and skills available to you.  These people and skills could be on your team or somewhere else in your organization. One simple tool to use is a skills inventory, which I suggest you develop collaboratively with anyone that may be involved in execution of your work.
  • Ask if you can get to where you want to go with the people and skills you have?
    • Yes. Proceed happily along.
    • No. Make a plan to fill those gaps, could include training, hiring, contract work or vendor support. Most important thing is to be intentional and connect to where you’re trying to go.

What can go wrong right if you fail to put people at the center

I won’t enumerate all the things that can go wrong when we don’t put people at the center. Instead, I want to end on what can go right when we do.

When people are at the center of an integrated data system, the beneficiaries don’t know they are benefiting from data and technology. When it works, it is invisible. Instead, they have the benefits they need when they need them, the right care at the right time in the right place, and are served by a coordinated system of support.

And when people are at the center, the people delivering technology and data systems are intellectually challenged, motivated and continuously improving because their work is connected to impact.

And a special thanks to all those lovely people that made this report possible

Speaking of people, it was a group of peers convened by a collaborative effort of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy (AISP), the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), and MetroLab Network that put together this report. I was struck by everyone’s brilliance and sincere desire to unstick the stickiest of problems in the service of others.

My peer contributors included:

  • Joy Bonaguro, former San Francisco Chief Data Officer
  • Matt Gee, Brighthive
  • Lisa Green, Data Domino Lab
  • David Hill, UNC Charlotte Urban Institute
  • Bill Howe, University of Washington
  • Anjum Khurshid, University of Texas at Austin
  • Julia Koschinsky, Center for Spatial Data Science
  • Graham MacDonald, Urban Institute
  • Christopher Mader, University of Miami
  • Kathy Pettit, National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership
  • Deepthi Puram, University of Miami
  • Matthew Tamayo-Rios, Open Lattice
  • Emily Wiegand, Chapin Hall
  • Bill Yock, Santa Clara County

And actually writing, editing, corralling and integrating everyone’s ideas and feedback is no small feat! That was performed expertly by the talented Natalie Evans Harris and supported by the staff at MetroLab network including Ben Levine and Stefania Di Mauro-Nava.

Finally, NNIP and AISP made expert contributions and first recognized the need for the research for which the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided generous support. Chris Kingsley from the foundation was an important contributor to the work as well as Amy Hawn Nelson from AISP and Leah Hendey from NNIP. The paper wouldn’t have seen light if not for their leadership and collaborative effort.

Thanks to everyone that made this possible and I hope you get value from the report toward advancing integrated data in your organization!

Correction: this post has been updated to mention the important contributions of AISP and NNIP as well as the generous support of the Annie E. Casey foundation. This was an accidental oversight.