What we learned from investing in data fluency

What we learned from investing in data fluency

Philip Davidovich and Jesus Melendez Vicente


People looking at a computer and phone
Photo by K15 Photos

As a MEL Officer, I have a strong understanding of data, but this experience taught me new data concepts that are outside of my daily work.

- Anonymous participant feedback

Building staff capacity to meaningfully and responsibly harness value from data in global development is critical to advance learning, inform new solutions, and improve outcomes in a rapidly changing world. For IREX, this is a cross-cutting priority to meet the ambitious goals outlined in IREX 2025; however, building functional data literacy skills is not enough. The wider challenge  is connecting diverse staff roles and responsibilities with data to solve complex problems. This requires a fluency in how data can (and cannot) be used among staff and systems that function with a common awareness and mission. 

To meet this need, IREX's Center for Applied Learning and Impact (CALI) developed the Data Learning Journey – an engaging, internal capacity development initiative with the guiding principles that all staff, regardless of their role or position, contribute to a team’s use of data; and that data is a tool for learning collaboratively. In the fall of 2021, the Data Learning Journey was launched, and, to date, nearly 10% of the organization have joined the initiative, participating in all activities that aim to build and sustain the five skills needed for Data Fluency. These skills include the following:

  • Identifying an opportunity to use data
  • Achieving your data literacy needs
  • Working with data responsibly
  • Fostering effective discussions around data
  • Building collaborative data practices Data Learning Journey cycle

The Data Learning Journey approached building these skills with a blend of  self-paced activities and resources, collaborative workshops, and webinar discussions with external experts. The roll-out of the Data Learning Journey was supported through a partnership with the online learning platform, Data Camp, made possible by a donation from Social Impact Partnerships at Meta to advance data literacy. Ultimately, this initiative invests in staff building and applying new data skills in their work, while coming together to explore how a team with diverse data skills can work together towards a common mission.

What is “data fluency” and why is it important?

Data fluency is a web of connected elements in an organization thatFigure 2 - Data Fluency Framework are essential to foster the effective use of data towards a common mission. These elements consider how data is used (or not used) between different actors and that the people and systems that engage with data in these diverse processes are inextricably connected - a significant barrier existing in any of them fostering inefficiencies in all of them. The Data Fluency Framework, illustrated in figure 2, was developed by Zach and Chris Gemignani and organizes these elements between consumers and producers of data at the organizational and individual levels. When considering how to invest in building and sustaining the efficient use of data within an organization, this framework provides awareness of the key considerations to make in that process. Informed by this concept, CALI identified the five cross-cutting skills essential to data fluency and designed the four learning activities that make up the Data Learning Journey with them in mind. These activities include the following:

  • Develop data personas that reflect staff’s unique relationship with data.
  • Connect resources to build new data skills.
  • Discuss data fluency concepts in an engaging learning series.
  • Coordinate a data challenge to develop data products.

The following sections outlines the five cross-cutting skills, why they are essential, and how the four learning activities of the Data Learning Journey relayed them to IREX staff.

Skill #1: Identifying an opportunity to use data

This skill is rooted in the awareness of what barriers exist in your work and how data may be able to improve them. It includes the ability to clearly define a problem, articulate what data would help to address that problem, and identifying tools and approaches to facilitate learning and think critically. The Data Camp partnership provided participants with a “sandbox” of over 350 courses and integrated software tools, encouraging staff to explore new data skills they otherwise may not have initially gravitated towards. Additionally, brownbag discussions with external experts and workshops on defining a problem complimented how they can apply these new skills in their work.

Skill #2: Achieving your data literacy needs

“The DLJ did a good job in making us aware of how to engage with data in different ways and how our personas can be helpful in adopting new data skills.”

This skill acknowledges that every person has a unique relationship with data and how they want to improve working with it. It includes prioritizing foundational abilities to read, write, and communicate data in context; understand different data sources, analytical methods, and techniques relevant to their work; and identify meaningful insights to inform decisions. Adopting “role-based” personas allows staff to create reliable and realistic representations of their current capacity and future needs. Benefits from understanding your persona and the personas of others in your work environment include the following:

  • Refine learning/professional development objectives.
  • Understand diverse contributions across a team/organization.
  • Improve communication.
  • Foster empathy with other roles and responsibilities.

Balancing the development of personas with Data Camp’s data literacy course track supported staff’s ability to improve this skill as needed and at their own pace.

Skill #3: Working with data responsibly

This skill reflects the impact data we work with can have on others and the considerations that need to be continuously made. It includes applying principles of data safety, ethics, inclusiveness, and transparency across the data lifecycle. Fostering conversations with staff on these issues and connecting them with resources and approaches to discuss it with others on their team, supported them in identifying common considerations that can be applied to their unique environment.

Skill #4: Fostering effective discussions around data

This skill focuses on building a common language of data within a team. It includes communicating priorities, establishing common terminology, values, and key metrics, facilitating a discussion around meaningful insights, and incorporating data into everyday activities. Practicing and sharing engaging activities that promote this skill throughout the learning series builds confidence in staff to incorporate it more intentionally in their work.

Skill #5: Building collaborative data practices

This skill acknowledges that every person has a unique relationship with data based on their diverse roles and responsibilities within a team. Balancing diverse skills and perspectives within a team to efficiently support and manage sustainable data practices is an essential part of data fluency and includes understanding different competencies within a team, identifying essential (and non-essential) data products, and fostering efficient knowledge management. Actively discussing personas throughout the Data Learning Journey, sharing resources on how teams can support each persona, and coordinating a data challenge for different personas to work together to support staff in improving this skill, supported staff in fostering more collective use of data towards a common mission.

Staff response to Data Learning Journey

Following the completion of a recent learning series session, Figure 3 - Survey data on data fluency skills IREX staff participants completed an anonymous retrospective survey to indicate potential improvement in their data fluency skills over the course of the initiative. 57% of respondents indicated agreeing or strongly agreeing to improved capacity in all skills, and figure 3 highlights that each skill saw an indication of improved capacity by 80-90% of participants.

Overall, the Data Learning Journey was a massive undertaking for CALI administrators and IREX staff and we are eager to share it with others! The first iteration of the Data Learning Journey will be concluding at the end of June with the completion of the internal Data Challenge competition. Following that competition, we will be publishing a beta version of the Data Learning Journey playbook that consolidates all the resources and frameworks we have incorporated in this process. Our intention is that this playbook can be a growing document to inform how organizations can approach investing in data fluency to more meaningfully and responsibly harness value from data.

                      Check out the Data Learning Journey Playbook 

                      Learn more from this DataCamp webinar with IREX staff!