The 'Data That Makes a Difference' Principle

The 'Data That Makes a Difference' Principle

I stole this phrase from Michael Quinn Patton's upcoming book 'Blue Marble Evaluation'. It resonated so strongly when I read it.

But I'm still sensing my way into what it means in the Social System Mapping context - so expect this article to evolve over time.

The first thing it means to me is - when defining the data to map - defining profile and connection questions - who will need to see this and what will it tell them? How will you know it's useful? I'm opinion-less about how much is too much or too little, or what language is right - what option lists are good and which are bad.

But key is - it has to be questioned perpetually. We have to constantly compare the data we're gathering to the difference we want it to make. What do we really want this map to give us? How do we want the network to change because of it? What is the network trying to generate & how can this map be increasingly better at supporting it?

What I often see is clients who are afraid of asking too many questions for fear the members have survey fatigue - but, I find that if the data is for their own use and if they know how to dig into the map, it feels different - they often ask for more. I also see clients who avoid certain kinds of questions for fear that they're too uncomfortable or too revealing. Or asking questions because that's what they've seen in other maps. It's often less about 'that data isn't useful' and more about 'what useful data is missing?' or 'how can we make THIS data more useful? What more could we learn from it?'

Again - this principle has to be combined with the 'Meet Them Where They're At' and the 'Show Them' principles. They must be allowed to start at their own first step, but then continually be questioned about their data-choices and adapting based on what they uncover. The map is only going to be as good as the data we generate - but we can evolve that data over time as the whole group learns together what it needs.

There are 2 fundamental tensions I often sense that I believe undermine the value of the data:

The first is an idea about something related to scientific rigor - people want to be sure they're being scientifically rigorous. Which is fine - unless it's failing to serve the needs of the whole. I'll sacrifice the fantasy of accuracy every day (if that's what it takes), for something that fosters more agency.

The second tension I sense has to do with transparency. As a culture, we're used to hiding what makes us uncomfortable. For instance, it's easier to just hide/not ask about certain demographic data-points - such as race, gender identity, age - than to deal with the patterns that might be visible if we visualize them, or the potential for misunderstanding that would entail.

Or - sometimes clients are uncomfortable with the fact that 2 persons/orgs may see their relationship very differently. I rate my connection to you a 5, but you rate it a 2 - what's that about? Sometimes clients want me to hide that fact - average the relationship value out, or over-ride one with the other. I never do that, because one party would rightly claim to be misrepresented. But I also don't do that because the difference is an opportunity to explore different perspectives. It's an opportunity to learn what connections really are. What's required is a collaborative inquiry, not a glossing-over.

And that surfacing of tensions addresses my other question about this principle - what about 'makes a difference' resonated? What 'difference' was I sensing? I'm sensing right now, as I write this, that I'm going to be actively pondering this principle for a while. More will emerge, and it will get distilled.

But right now, the 'difference' part (for me - I'm just voicing my own views here) has to do with:
  • Enabling us to see what has been invisible, in terms of power-structures and the dynamics in human systems.
    • (that's super-clear - that's a deep value of mine & perhaps the core driver for me in this work.)
  • Enabling us to see from a larger perspective, and to see the patterns in the dynamics.
  • So that destructive and exploitative power status-quos can be broken apart and power can be distributed more equitably and used more generatively.
  • And so that we can gain actionable insights into our intractable problems that we can't get by other means.
Ok - so - that's the difference that I want this work to generate. It's about surfacing, it's about transparency, and it's about both broader and deeper systemic perspectives. So - for this moment - I'm satisfied with saying - A key Social System Mapping principle is that we must constantly question our data and iteratively push it to making the difference we designed these tools to make.  So that we have Data That Makes a Difference.

Read more about the other principles.

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