Learning and Evaluation: A Holistic & Scientific Approach to Data

The overarching goal of Juma’s Learning and Evaluation (LEV) team is simple: collect data to ensure Juma programs team, that is, those that work directly with youth, are having the right impact. But getting that data, interpreting it, and applying it to real lives takes a cross-disciplinary approach that touches every team. With the guiding light of Juma’s ‘Youth First’ mentality, LEV works to blend the ambiguity and variation of human experience with data-driven decision-making to give youth at Juma the best environment and resources to thrive.

The LEV team’s job always begins with collecting data. LEV tracks metrics ranging from how many shifts a youth works at the ballpark to how often they report using for-profit check-cashing services and how their managers in the ballpark rate their soft skills, such as communication. To keep track of all of these metrics, Sanobar Sajan, Director of Learning and Evaluation, relies on program staff across the country and a database tool called Apricot. Together, the programs and LEV teams work to understand both the experiences of individual Juma youth and larger trends across cohorts and sites. “The way we’ve designed the system is so that the impact at its base level is measured for each individual youth in a holistic way–how are they doing at the ballpark, the soft skills workshops, the financial capability workshops–and what does all of that together say about their experience in the program as a whole?” explains Sanobar.

With the LEV team’s help, programs staff are equipped with the information they need to guide their work, but the relationship is symbiotic: “LEV is constantly in communication with the direct service staff who are actually doing the work on the ground. We meet regularly so we can get a realistic sense of how things are going and what feedback they have as experts in youth development–are we collecting the right metrics? How hard was it to collect this information? Is it meaningful? What reports are staff looking at when they’re reflecting on the work they do with youth? How do we take that work to the next level to maximize impact?” says Sanobar. “I see the direct-service staff who are working with the youth very much as partners to Learning and Evaluation–they know better than anyone what the youth experience and what are the signs and indicators that a youth is going to make positive progress versus if they are at risk of dropping off.”

But even with a dedicated team, collecting and analyzing huge amounts of data while providing a full range of services to youth can pose challenges. Data collection requires a large time investment from direct service staff, taking away time they could be spending on other elements of the program. “To solve that problem, we’re taking principles of data science and trying to implement them into the nonprofit space,” says Sanobar. “The plan is to use scripting and automated reports to process as much of the data as we can as quickly as we can, so my time can be focused on working with staff to derive meaning from the data and make program adjustments in real time.”

To do this, Sanobar and the programs team look for ways to make data collection an inherent part of activities. “Being able to see those patterns in the data and then go back to sites with that information–such as, this is where the bulk of youth say they want to grow, how do we build that into their Juma experience?–is what Learning and Evaluation is all about,” explains Sanobar. Eventually, Sanobar hopes to have a system in which many metrics flow straight into the larger database with minimal time investment from direct service staff. “The overall data collection and analysis system is designed to minimize data entry, use scripting and automation to process data, and do all of this as cost efficiently as possible.” explains Sanobar.

With all of the new questions raised by new data coming in, the work of Juma’s Learning and Evaluation team is never done, but Sanobar has plenty of ideas to keep moving forward. “I’m really trying to innovate as much as possible using technology where appropriate to capture data at scale.” In the future, the LEV team hopes to continue collecting robust data while freeing up even more time for program staff so that they can focus on the most important aspect of their work at Juma: making positive strides for Juma youth.

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