*Cross posted from the Harvard Data Smart Cities site

If you’re in government or academia you have surely seen reports that sit on shelves and do nothing once they’ve been compiled. You may even have helped to produce them. They often cost a lot yet yield very little.  At the other end of the information delivery spectrum are powerful, dynamically adjustable web dashboards and interfaces that can often be adapted as needed, but those don’t give us recommendations nor allow us to answer deeper questions.  Often what is really needed lies somewhere in between.

Consider your normal report deliverable – a PDF.  Perhaps you get to provide input for a round of error checking and review once it’s completed, otherwise your only gain as a client is a static document.

Quite often once a consultants report is delivered we realize we should have asked different questions, required more detail in certain areas and more context behind certain explanations, and maybe some things were just not relevant in the end. By then we’re stuck with what we paid for, useful or not.  The fact that it’s 2013 and we’re still thinking in static deliverables and ‘final’ anythings should be astonishing. How can we be smarter about data?

1. Don’t ask for a report.  This assumes that you know everything you will need to know up front, which is often false.  A static report cannot adapt when you realize you asked the wrong question, when you need to dig deeper into a single issue or data set.

2.  Evolve. Consider the flow of information needed for a community planning process- a single dense report up front is simply a huge chunk of information that most people will ignore and most cannot absorb. Ask for data vignets or factsheets on certain aspects that can be delivered along the process timeline to meet needs as they evolve. As your understanding of data needs changes along a process, your data team must be there to support you at each stage.

3.  Don’t silo or isolate your data folks –read more

4.  Iterate. Instead of final delivery and review, adopt a more collaborative approach with your data team. Sit down and brainstorm the direction and details as they form. Waiting for the final version means you’re stuck with it.  You often discover that you need to dig deeper with a specific indicator, or that you need to dis-aggregate to get to the real important stuff. This can’t happen at the end of a report process. Require your staff or consultants to plan for and provide multi-stage reviews. This way the data geeks can get strong guidance from you, and you can better understand the process of getting and analyzing data.

5.  Own your data. or better yet, open your data.  When you pay for a report you get just that, pages, in a PDF.  As we encourage more government agencies to open their data for use by all, we need to do the same in our sector.  When you contract for a report or research support, require the real data to come with it. That way you’re not locked into using the data just how the consultant prepares it; you can manipulate it any way you need.  If you’re a nonprofit or a government agency, you should be considering opening the data for public use. You’ve paid for it, the hard work is done, now you can provide an amazing resource to your community and your stakeholders by publishing the data unearthed in your project.  Data is the ultimate non-consumable resource!  If you’ve gotten government data for your work, put it out there and make it available for others to benefit from also. We work in a far too siloed sector. Why should ten local organizations have to expend the same resources to find the same data? When government data is ubiquitous and easy to find, our work is better, smarter, cheaper.

We need to change how we think about information and about informed processes. We need to be able to learn constantly and to refine our knowledge over time. Static reports don’t allow us to do that.  It’s time we wise up about what to ask for and when to ask for it.  At the very least we need to be asking: “what is the actual value we get from one more PDF report?”.