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What is a Data Strategy and is this what I am missing?

If you are running a project or organisation, you may have put considerable effort in designing and M&E system. You may even have been collecting and using data to organisation your processes for some years.

If, however you are beginning to get the feeling that you are sure that the data you have may be able to be put to good use, to truly tell a story of your impact, then perhaps it is time for data strategy. A Data Strategy differs from your M&E system as it is really a more high-level, evaluation focused plan for the use of information within a specified process. M&E is more about the process and practice of naming indicators, and developing implementation plans for data collection, analysis and reporting. While M&E defines how you will collect the data and why this data is relevant for your work, a Data Strategy is an articulation of how you will use this data to inspire future growth.

How to build a data strategy

Your data strategy is fundamentally linked to your organisational or programmatic growth strategy. If you aim to expand your implementation reach, then your Data Strategy may seek to clearly show efficiencies of different organisational design elements, or to create evidence that your programme is indeed scalable, and efficacious at scale. If you are seeking to raise more funds for more intensive work in a given region, then your data should be able to generate high-impact visuals which appeal to funders, and clearly tell your impact story.

Step 1: Define the Goal

Begin by defining a goal or set of goals which you hope your data will serve. Are you seeking to show learnings? Perhaps your programme shows why a specific type of treatment yields results that none other does. Perhaps you have developed a model of social franchising which will easily allow organisations such as yours to expand their reach in collaboration. Are you seeking to grow the reach of a scalable programme from a central HQ? It is a good idea to start by clearly defining these goals.

Step 2: Bring in your M&E system design – the ‘how to’ of how you planned to get there

In this step, you will want to recall which indicators you had planned to collect and are collecting, and ascertain which of these will, in turn, help to achieve the goal and provide the information required to achieve the goal.

Step 3: Design, Scope and Cost

Having information is key, but knowing precisely what to do with this to really reach your strategic goals is so much more significant. When you are running a complex project, especially in difficult contexts, it is not easy to take the time to re-gain the bird’s eye view perspective required to think strategically about how best to use the information. It may be useful to bring in researchers or consultant support. Remember, you already have a clear plan of what you aimed to achieve and your intended impact, this step is about what you do with the information on impact which your M&E and other activities yielded.

Step 4: Generate Strategic Products from your information library

Your data strategy should include clear and specific outputs which are clear in their intention and their intended audience (like a marketing strategy). This step is about generating this product using the rigorous information you have gathered. You may wish to include information from your evaluations over the years, as well as case-studies and associated materials which show your impact. Remember, as with all evaluations, the single biggest predictor of their use and uptake is whether they contain that ‘feel-factor’ and get into someone’s heart and mind. Knowing your audience (and choosing them with strategic authenticity) is key to your success.

From evidence-based practice to information-driven strategy!

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