Using data to tell a story
Lessons learned from an experiment of the study of Jewish L.A.
As an evaluator and researcher, I was accustomed to reading articles filled with charts, tables and loads of numbers. Translating the science into reports that inspire meaning requires one to leverage a different kind of expertise that bridges the science of data with the knowledge of the strengths, limitations and proclivities of the community. We believe that wrestling with this tension will make data relevant and inspire conversation and change in communities.
As associate chief program officer, learning and impact, at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I am spearheading a new department focused on research and evaluation. This builds on the years of work we have done to create a data-driven culture of reflection and learning among our staff, with our organizational partners and on behalf of our L.A. Jewish community. The first large-scale effort was leading the Study of Jewish L.A., our community’s strategic investment in understanding better the behaviors, attitudes, values and connections of our diverse Jewish L.A..
As an evaluator and researcher, I was accustomed to reading articles filled with charts, tables and loads of numbers. Creating reports outlining the essential analyses to answer research questions for community studies is more than a science. The science — the sophisticated tools that allow for accurate sampling, design, data collection and analysis — is foundational and requires specific and practiced expertise. Translating the science into reports that inspire meaning requires one to leverage a different kind of expertise that bridges the science of data with the knowledge of the strengths, limitations and proclivities of the community. We believe that wrestling with this tension will make data relevant and inspire conversation and change in communities.
We knew that presenting data in a 100- or 150-page report with endless text and extensive tables was not going to reach the typical L.A. Jew. There would be too much of a gap between numbers and meaning. As we researched how Jewish and secular organizations presented their research studies, we gravitated to those with eye-popping charts, interactive navigations and dynamic stories to tell. We knew from the outset that we had hired a premier team of researchers fully capable in the most sophisticated methods to design, collect and analyze data from our diverse and complex region.
At the same time, we understood that bringing in a designer to help the data “come to life” was a priority. We wanted our data to be rigorous and fun. We wanted the data to spark curiosity and inspire the reader to think strategically. We believed the reports, including the visual identity of the study, should radiate inclusiveness, transparency and action – some of the primary values we brought to this work. We committed ourselves to a dynamic collaboration to create a new shared vision built on elevating the stories of the data through accessible visuals. It was a process any one of us might have described as “exciting” to, at times, “a bit painful.” But we learned a tremendous amount. It felt courageous to do something completely new, and even a bit daring.
Conceptually this process and our roles made sense, and we mapped out a budget and timeline. After weighing the benefits and challenges, we decided to release reports by theme. By focusing in-depth on one theme per report, we made the data action-oriented and digestible, and included relevant quotes from open-ended data. This meant that the community would not see all the data at once, which complicated our PR plan.
Before drafting reports, we needed to extract the essential stories from the reams of data. The process of distilling the most relevant and essential “stories” of the data required more time, analysis and discussion on the front end. Guided by the researchers and their analysis, we sifted through pages and pages of basic frequencies and crosstabs (showing associations among variables) and examined the patterns of responses among selected sub-groups. We revisited our assumptions and the compelling questions that might help our community develop and grow.
The vision of wanting it to be inviting and accessible to the everyday member of the L.A. Jewish community meant that we focused on enticing visuals and fewer long tables with just numbers. Instead, we highlighted “call outs” to guide the reader (see “Consider This” sidebars in reports). Despite the reality that the thematic reports would be limited in length to 10-30 pages, the process of determining what would comprise each report took much additional time, energy and consideration. The collaboration was fruitful and challenging. By the middle of June, we had finished four reports including a key findings report, L.A. by the numbers (focused on demographics), diversity (focused on findings through various lenses of our diverse community), and well-being (focused on financial, physical, mental and emotional well-being).
Our June 22nd study launch showcased the relevancy, creativity and vibrancy of the study of Jewish L.A. to our diverse community. We had a wide cross-section of our community present with 200 people congregating in-person at the Skirball Cultural Center to hear from the researchers for the first hour. The second hour was dedicated to lively conversations in one of four breakout rooms, each with a different theme and diverse community leaders sharing insights. We learned, shared and celebrated. The participants offered thoughts on “I notice….,” and “I wonder…” which raised many fascinating observations and questions. Now, just a few weeks after the launch event, the emails and calls are pouring in asking for presentations for boards and staff members. We will spend the upcoming months engaging the community in a variety of strategy-driven conversations using our data as a guide. With four reports released online at studyofjewishla.org, we look forward to completing the next seven thematic reports (Jewish education, connections,and Israel among others). We will approach the next seven reports with the following learnings in mind, which might serve as guidance for anyone else striving to make data relevant and action- oriented.
- Come to the table with an open mind, generous heart and a collaborative spirit: Intentions go a long way. Keeping the focus on the desired outcomes and appreciating, with humility, that making data meaningful may be more difficult than you initially assumed.
- Continue to circle back to the original data as the stories emerge: Noticing patterns in the data often means circling back to re-examine and reflect again on the findings. What jumps out? What story is most valuable?
- Keep your outcomes front and center: Be clear from the beginning what you want your readers to feel, do and value. Identify your values and keep checking your process and product to ensure they align with those values.
- Expect it to take longer than however long you had planned. At some point, though, make a clear deadline and stick to it. There will always be more tweaks to make but getting it in the world in a timely manner is a priority as well.
- Do not give up when it gets hard: There were plenty of times when any one of us could have thrown our hands up in the air, but we persevered since we knew the result would be worth the effort.
With much gratitude to our esteemed researchers at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University along with NORC at University of Chicago, we step into the next stage of making our data relevant. We begin now to collaboratively address the multitude of opportunities and challenges revealed in the study of Jewish L.A.. We will approach this work enthusiastically, creatively, strategically, and with ongoing appreciation for the diversity of Jewish L.A.. We gained so many insights from leaders who shared their experiences conducting similar studies, and we hope what we learned also inspires new ideas as we all strive to build strong, creative, and vibrant Jewish communities.
Thank you to Dr. Janet Aronson and team and Zoe Pappenheimer for their ongoing collaboration on the study of Jewish L.A..
Shira Rosenblatt is associate chief program officer at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
For more on the L.A. survey read Esther Kustanowitz’s piece on eJewish Philanthropy.