How to Get Your Community Cooperating, Communicating and Collaborating for Everyone’s Benefit

Remember those famous paintings by Georges Seurat? Seurat used a technique known as pointillism. He and others would paint beautiful landscapes by using a multitude of small dots, carefully placed in harmony to create beautiful imagery. The technique relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones.

What’s interesting about the technique is that, if you look at the paintings too closely, all you see is the dots — mere pixels that don’t amount to much at first glance. It’s not until you step back and look at the literal big picture that you truly understand what you’re looking at.

I use this analogy all the time to illustrate the powers — and the limitations — of data analysis. By examining data at a very granular level of detail, you see something different than when you step back and look at the bigger picture, taking all of the “dots” into account…and connecting them!

Any given data point is like a dot in a pointillist painting. It bears information on its own; but only in context of all of the other data points does it truly have meaning. A community’s “data dots” reveal secrets—micro data sets that each tell their own story. Yet together, they make a bigger picture; as distinct inputs, they stand alone.

The more granular you can get in terms of the insights and data about the neighborhoods and citizens you serve on a daily basis, the easier it is to connect dots, understand correlations and causation, and design programs and plans in the interest of both the individual and the community at large.

How to Paint the Perfect Picture of the Future for Your Community

For this analogy to truly have application in the real world, our communities and the public-sector entities that drive their growth and success need to speak a “Common Data Language.”

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce:

The need for a common data language is analogous to the use of a common language for people and economies to share the best of ideas, products, and services. A language used exclusively by a few isolates people from the rest of what the world has to offer.

So it is with the systems, technology and data used by local governments; schools and districts; fire and police departments; economic planning departments; and state, local and federal entities throughout the public sector. If every system is speaking a different language, they can’t possibly optimally communicate, collaborate or cooperate to the greatest benefit to the communities they serve. But that represents the reality for the vast majority of communities across the U.S. — everyone working on different platforms, speaking different languages, and missing opportunities to optimize planning and future outcomes.

The term frequently used in data and performance analytics to describe the ideal paradigm is “interoperability” — the ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information collaboratively. Governing bodies in education and municipal government often set standards and guidelines for interoperability, but they can be difficult and onerous to adhere to, especially for those entities still relying on more primitive data processing systems, such as spreadsheets and legacy databases.

What would this look like in the real world and under the best-case scenario?

  • School district leadership would clearly understand what economic drivers exist between community demographics and student achievement.
  • Economic planners would easily draw causal conclusions about how equity in education and access to technology should shape future planning programs and investments in infrastructure.
  • Financial administrators in school districts could easily overlay public safety data with educational outcomes, to draw potential correlations between community crime and student performance.
  • Economic development professionals would clearly understand the demographics and detailed data about its available workforce, by “braiding” education data with workforce and U.S. Census data, and they could have unfettered access to data visualizations that plainly articulate trends, correlations, causes and effects.

In other words, all of the data points (Seurat’s dots), would work together to paint one clear picture of the past and present, so that leadership and employees in the public sector can access and apply all of the available data and information to their budgeting, planning, programming and overall decision-making processes for the future.

What Does “Braiding Data” Mean?

I mentioned the notion of “braiding” data above. The concept of data braiding is being increasingly used in the data analysis world, in place of bridging or integrating, as it suggests a greater connectivity and higher degree of codependence. 

For example, a school district may consider braiding transparency data with its fiscal data and with student achievement data. Or it may wish to braid academic performance data with fiscal data and economic data. Overall, a community—upon adopting and achieving interoperability and a Common Data Language—can collaboratively “braid” all of their various data feeds. 

Where are the connections? Which is the driver of outcomes, and what data demonstrates the effects of those drivers? The key to this working is to have the ability to combine data sources, then intuitively visualize how various data sets are interdependent and codependent.

I like to say, “Overlay to understand.” Connect dots. Draw more insightful conclusions. Make the invisible visible, and move away from the siloed data sets you are using today toward a more robust and more accurate predictor of community welfare. Making better informed decisions will naturally have a greater impact on your community, but you must be considering all of the available data that paint your community’s pictures, not just the “dots” that are easy to find.

Picture a braided cord, with each strand being a single data stream in your community, from education to economic and from demographic to overall community health. To get started:

  • Partner with the other public-sector entities that serve your community and collaborate to adopt a Common Data Language.
  • Establish and insist on standards of interoperability, so everyone can share, collaborate and communicate for the betterment of every aspect of the community.
  • Make your data intuitive, visual and transparent, so it can be accessed and understood by all stakeholders, from the professional on your team to the layperson resident with no data expertise.
  • Make the first move: Take it upon yourself to be your community’s Common Data Language ambassador and pioneer, as big ideas and bold programs need to be pushed forward, so nobody has to be pulled along grudgingly.

If you’d like to see how all of your community’s data threads can effectively intertwine, how easy it can be to adopt a Common Data Language, and why all of this is so critical to the future of your community, let’s talk.