Why You Should Marry Your Data

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Marry your data to each other. In other words, connect related data. Lots of organizations have unmarried or disconnected data. They might track participation in each of their programs with a separate Excel file. They might house their financial data in one database and their program data in another. The problem is that, by storing our data in different places, we limit what our data can tell us. For example, I worked with an organization that ran a program each summer. At the start of each summer, they created a new spreadsheet with the names, addresses, and ages of the people who registered for the program. The list for each year had about the same number of participants with about the same percentage in each age bracket and each neighborhood. So they thought the program was pretty steady. Then they asked me if I could show them their data in a different way. The first thing I did was marry the data from different spreadsheets. This is easy to do in Tableau, Excel, and other programs. You just need a unique identifier (such as an ID number) for each participant. Then I created some simple bar charts, which told the organizations some basic things they didn’t know about their own program. For example, a chart showing how many people participated one, two, or three years surprised them. The one-year bar was much longer than the others. While overall participation was steady across years, very few individuals participated more than one year. This is something they couldn’t see with unmarried data. Similarly, when participation and financial data are disconnected, you can’t answer questions like: Are our most expensive programs also the most effective? Or what is the per-capita cost of a certain program and how has that changed over time? Sure housing all of your data in the same database solves the disconnected data problem. But when that’s not feasible, you can still marry subsets of your data to answer important questions.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.