August 14, 2020
Guest Blog

Data-Sharing Across Sectors is Needed to Prevent Harm and Solve Collective Problems

Powered by Data on behalf of the Data Policy Coalition

This guest post is submitted by Powered by Data on behalf of the Data Policy Coalition. PFC is a founding partner of the Data Policy Coalition and an ongoing Steering Committee member. PFC is also working with Powered by Data in developing a Data Strategy for Funders.

As we all adjust to the rapidly changing context of the COVID pandemic, it is clear that data is more important now than ever. From daily counts on cases, testing, and ICU admissions across the globe – having accurate data on the prevalence and outcomes of COVID-19 is truly a life or death issue. Unfortunately, we are also seeing what happens when we don’t have good data. Without accurate information on the number and distribution of COVID cases, we have no idea how big a problem we’re facing and what it will take to solve it. The same is true for all of the major social challenges we confront as a country – from unemployment and hallway medicine to systemic racism. While the problem of data gaps comes to a head in this time of emergency, the reality is that data (and the lack of it) impacts decisions affecting the lives and livelihoods of all of us, each and every day.

In 2019, The Globe & Mail ran a series on Canada’s Data Deficit, highlighting the gaps in Canada’s data, which leave the government and Canadians in the dark when it comes to understanding and addressing complex social challenges. This gap is especially stark when it comes to the data and information shared from the government to the nonprofit sector. Many nonprofit organizations deliver services on behalf of or in partnership with government, while also working directly with community members whose data is being collected and used by the government. Yet rarely do nonprofit organizations have access to any of the data the government collects through these public programs.

Despite that non-profit organizations are both users of and contributors to government data, they are rarely engaged or even considered as a stakeholder when governments are making decisions about data policy and practice. This is a missed opportunity that brings a significant risk of harm to the communities we collectively serve. Effective data-sharing between the public sector and nonprofit sector is critical to ensure organizations have the information they need to build and evaluate effective programs and services that improve lives. Without this information, we run the risk of building programs that don’t work, waste resources, and even worse – jeopardize our collective health, safety, and wellbeing.

Building a system solution to address a long-standing challenge of the social sector:

Currently, most social sector actors do not have access to the data they need to address complex social problems and make evidence-based decisions.

In 2019, after two years of research and dialogue with stakeholders, we launched the Data Policy Coalition which is made up of more than 40 charities, nonprofit service providers, advocacy groups, and funders. For the first time, the social sector has a collective voice to influence important conversations with the government around data resources and infrastructure. The Data Policy Coalition offers the clout needed to demand attention and build political will for co-developing strategies around ethical and responsible use of data.

The Data Policy Coalition is pursuing a shared agenda for the social sector’s access to and responsible use of government-held administrative data. This form of cross-sector data-sharing is necessary to strengthen the impact of social programs by enabling the effective and ethical use of data in program planning, service integration, evaluation, and system advocacy. Better programs, based on evidence of what works, means better outcomes and better life opportunities for people from all walks of life.

How is the Data Policy Coalition taking action?

The Coalition is leveraging two important opportunities as we build the foundation for systems changes into 2021:

  1. Although tragic, COVID-19 has given us a clear opportunity. While our sector and communities will feel hardships brought on by the pandemic for years to come, we also see an opportunity to contribute to rebuilding more equitable systems through transition and recovery. We are continuing to mobilize sector-wide action to advance data-sharing with and for the nonprofit sector. This is essential in responding to COVID and to building the data systems we need to prevent and mitigate further health and social crises.
  2. The government is already taking action to improve internal data-sharing. The 2019 amendments to the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) represent a groundbreaking shift in policy – for the first time enabling data-sharing across government programs and ministries. This legislation removes the primary barrier to broader data-sharing within the government, which we had initially anticipated would require significant advocacy to build political will. The fact that the government has moved ahead with FIPPA amendments demonstrates alignment in our goals to increase data-sharing to strengthen public service. However, there is still almost no public awareness or discussion of this policy change outside of the small government team working on it, and still no plans or mechanisms for sharing data with nonprofits.

The Data Policy Coalition will build on the opportunity presented by this momentous legislation, and relationships we’ve established with senior public servants, to advance ethical and responsible sharing of data to improve social outcomes – starting with priority project areas.

Please visit the Data Policy Coalition website and reach out if you’re interested in joining. And if you’re interested in exploring uses of government data to pursue your mission – we want to hear from you! Email us at info@poweredbydata.org or find us on twitter: https://twitter.com/pwrd_by_data

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