Five Questions with Casey: Cindy Guy on Data’s Newest Super Tool

Posted January 9, 2017, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

As vice president for Research, Evaluation, Evidence and Data, Cindy Guy oversees independent evaluations of Foundation initiatives and commissions external research on issues affecting Casey’s target populations.

In this role, she also works to promote the development and uptake of Integrated Data Systems, which link data across multiple public agencies to generate a more comprehensive — and complete — picture of children, families and communities.

Prior to joining Casey in 1992, Guy taught at Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago and worked for MDRC, a national social policy research firm. She holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago.

In this Five Questions edition, Guy tells how Integrated Data Systems can inform social policy and program management to spur positive change for children and families.

Q1. What is an Integrated Data System?

An Integrated Data System is an important tool for enhancing research, program design, and policies to the benefit of children, families and communities. While human services agencies, schools and other institutions collect a rich array of data on the people they serve, they often silo this information. Integrated Data Systems enable different agencies to compile their data into a comprehensive database, which agencies can use to learn more about service patterns over time and, ultimately, about program results.

Q2. What are some benefits of using an Integrated Data System?

Integrated Data Systems can help users leverage data to drive decision making. They’re also cost effective. These systems include data that schools and agencies collect on every person they serve over the normal course of business. This means that when you ask a question that requires data from different agencies, you don’t need to start from scratch and conduct a new survey or research study. Integrated Data Systems are also ideal for disaggregating data by policy-relevant subgroups — such as by race or neighborhood — and for examining specific program components and outcome trends.

Q3. What are some challenges of using this type of system?

As with any large database, keeping information private and secure is important. You must take steps to ensure that users share information without violating an individual’s privacy or existing privacy laws.

The good news is that federal regulations support many types of data linking. The Every Student Succeeds Act encourages linking education data with child welfare data, and states have made strides in linking pre-kindergarten, K-12, and workforce data.

Other potential challenges: Integrated Data Systems rely on multiple agencies working together to build relationships and trust. They also require the use of sophisticated technology and a trained, data-savvy staff.

Q4. What led the Casey Foundation to focus on an Integrated Data System?

An extensive survey — like the one that the Foundation conducted across multiple Making Connections sites — provides a wealth of valuable data for evaluation and planning. Unfortunately, these surveys are time-limited.

In contrast, the administrative data collected by agencies are ongoing and sustainable. Because of this, Casey is working to help grantees access administrative data and use Integrated Data Systems to conduct policy research. The Foundation also supports efforts to link parent data with child data. Drawing this data connection can help us identify which programs and policies work best in supporting both vulnerable children and their parents at the same time.

Q5. Can you cite an example of how this tool has made a difference for children and families?

New York City used an Integrated Data System to connect child welfare data with juvenile justice data. As a result, city officials learned that kids placed in foster care by age 9 or later were more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system compared to kids who were placed in foster care as infants or in early childhood. Because of this finding, officials modified their services— and adopted more preventive, age-appropriate programs for adolescents.