Measuring our Values: How a data strategy can help us achieve our bold goal

Posted by: Jen Lewis-Walden

Many years ago, I worked with the Friends of Nature Foundation in seven rural communities just outside the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in eastern Bolivia. I helped support projects to develop a Natural Resources Management plan for the indigenous land contiguous to the Park, as well as with an environmental education curriculum in the local schools. We attempted to celebrate and balance traditional approaches of forest management with a curriculum explicitly designed to use the scientific method to research issues in the community. I was reminded of that work recently when I learned of Blue Shield of California Foundation’s approach to define hypotheses that are driving work to achieve the bold goal of being the healthiest state with the lowest rates of domestic violence. The Foundation is utilizing evidence — through testing assumptions, interrogating the field, and learning what works — alongside values, holding the central principles of integrity, equity, partnership, and possibility to further the work.

I’m joining the team as a Senior Fellow at a time when this multi-faceted approach is critical and the promise of a data strategy is seen as a key tool and through line to achieve the Foundation’s bold goal. The power of data to transform the way we think about health and well-being is enormous, and so being invited to participate in work to define a point of view, listen to what is working in the field, question what is missing, and provide thought leadership to the field at large is an exciting honor.

A data strategy for a foundation can help direct decision-making, further understanding of our collective knowledge, and surface opportunities that were previously hidden. We know that data is critical within programs to analyze impact as well as across efforts to strengthen connectivity of multi-dimensional systems to further catalyze community health. The Foundation is supporting work to connect data across health and social services systems, to elevate metrics to understand the impact of collaboration and distributive leadership models, to define new metrics to help prioritize domestic violence prevention, and to spearhead innovative definitions demonstrating the value of health, all of which aim to provide a more comprehensive view of individuals and communities, thus inviting us to reframe the way we think about our role, investments, partnership and the issues we care about. In advancing all of these approaches, we must hold both the “why” we are utilizing data to demonstrate outcomes and the “how” of structuring a system that allows for holistic, connected, and data-informed decision-making to improve health of individuals and communities.

In advancing all of these approaches, we must hold both the “why” we are utilizing data to demonstrate outcomes and the “how” of structuring a system that allows for holistic, connected, and data-informed decision-making to improve health of individuals and communities.

The tensions that will frame a data strategy are real in our current operating environment. There is an opportunity to leverage technology to access real-time data, ensure interoperability across systems, and standardize approaches, while also accounting for privacy and the diversity of needs and metrics that may be of value to communities. There is a balance of inviting technical and academic expertise to inform a strategy alongside elevating community expertise to define outcomes that matter to people. There are also opportunities to position ongoing data collection of interim or proxy indicators toward the type of long-term outcomes we aim to achieve. We can lead using data in a manner that allows for and holds these tensions with intention.

I believe that if we are to live our values, then data needs to be representative of and responsive to communities throughout California. This means understanding whose voice, needs, and aspirations are reflected in the data. Inherent in this inquiry are new approaches to define health and well-being well outside of traditional clinical approaches in order to assess what might be missing. Can we be bold enough to aim toward a more holistic definition of well-being, rather than limit ourselves to quantitative clinical measures of health? There are many opportunities to learn from different fields in this work to measure connectedness, dignity, power, opportunity, and potential, among other measures that may represent the aspirations, and challenges, felt by Californians. In addition, we will want to know who is building capacity to prioritize measures, collect data, and assess health and well-being at a local level. This calls on us to hold space for a multitude of approaches and community-led metrics to define what works and what is of value, thus clearly defining why we are doing the work we do.

This approach to data, built on a foundation of values and the rigor of science, will help us test the hypothesis that well-being is greater than the absence of disease. That could, in turn, help us understand trends of what might be working to generate health and well-being, identify some of the barriers, and build our collective knowledge that is grounded in people: our families, friends and neighbors. The Foundation is at an exciting nexus, learning, experimenting, and co-creating strategies to align, problem solve, and celebrate success, as well as to ask questions about how we can all live our values through a data strategy that helps accomplish the vision of making California the healthiest state in the nation.