Running a scope-a-thon for maximum impact

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One of the more challenging parts of using data to solve problems is at the outset: defining the problem to solve. Project scoping is the process through which various partners build a common definition of the problem and begin to imagine a feasible solution. The event in which groups collaborate to practice project scoping is known as a “scope-a-thon.”

As part of South Side Civic, we envision scope-a-thons providing two main benefits. First, civic organizations take a challenge they’re facing and reformulate it as a problem data can address. Second, participants develop skills and methods to incorporate data into their work in new ways. Data champions and others looking to plan and run an impactful scope-a-thon should keep four key ideas in mind.

Anchor the work to the organization’s mission

A guiding principle throughout the process is to center the organization’s mission. If an organization can improve the work they’re already doing through incorporating data or technology, the scoping will certainly be useful.

There are several reasons we might lose track of the mission. We might push aside the mission, because of a focus on data. Knowing problems should be solved with data may incentivize groups to choose any problem with a clear data angle, rather than conducting an honest appraisal of the problems they’re facing. Or, we might simply have a lot of ideas that have little to do with the organization’s core, day-to-day activities.

The pitfalls outlined above can occur both before and during the scope-a-thon. Pre-scoping can help mitigate these issues. At this stage, you should aim to help the organization define a problem that is essential to their operations and can reasonably be addressed by data. Asking probing questions centered on the mission and day-to-day activities can help keep participants from falling into the trap of jumping to an easy data solution. An added tension here is to focus the problem statement just enough so that the organization can prepare for the scope-a-thon event without pigeonholing the organization and group into an overly narrow problem definition space.

On the day of the event, we introduce the problem to six to ten people, some of whom may have very little context, and some who may be wary of the premises. Given the mix of enthusiasm, freshness, and potentially skepticism of the participants, grounding the purpose of the scope-a-thon in the organization’s mission can build a sense of group purpose and provide a criterion against which to judge progress.

Align technical solutions to real world decisions for maximum impact

Subtle differences in scope can dramatically change the efficacy of a technical solution. One such example occurred in Chicago, Illinois. Lead exposure continues to diminish the lives of Chicago residents, particularly those who grew up in one of Chicago’s nearly 200,000 older buildings in the city. Recognizing this issue, the Chicago Department of Public Health approached the University of Chicago Center for Data Science and Public Policy, asking for help identifying homes that would be good candidates for lead abatement.

This sounds like a well-formulated problem: the Department’s mission is improving the health of Chicagoans, and using data to determine homes eligible for lead abatement is a great example of data-driven decision making.

But the key question unasked in the problem formulation is: “Whose health is at the greatest risk from lead exposure?” Young children are the most susceptible to lead poisoning. Prior to the program, the city initiated lead abatement only after a child had already tested positive for elevated blood-lead levels. Realizing this, the team reformulated the problem to “identifying homes that would be a good candidate for lead abatement and would house young children”. Since then, lead-prediction risk scores are being incorporated into the data management system of a local hospital network. This seemingly minor change to the scope made the project much more impactful.

In practice, you will start to see patterns in the type of technical solutions that lead to better decision making. The City of New Orleans “NOLAlytics” provides a topology of problems and solutions and is a good place to start.

Take time to get people from different vantage points on the same page

The scope-a-thon is designed to bring together groups of people with different expertise and relationships to an organization’s problem to complete complex tasks. Groups evaluate a problem’s importance to the organization’s mission, develop a nuanced understanding of the problem, and have a “first-go” at designing a technical solution to the problem. These tasks are difficult to complete over the course of a year, let alone in two days. But before people from different backgrounds, who have often never met before, can collaborate to achieve the scope-a-thon goals, there needs to be some time and space for developing trust. With a foundation of trust, participants focus on tying their work to the mission, rather than wondering if their perspectives will be respected.

Generally, the organizations that commit to the scope-a-thon tend to be open to, if not excited about, becoming more data-driven. Similarly, those participants excited by new methods, techniques, and technology for problem-solving tend to be eager to use their quantitative skills, and will therefore be focused on digging into the data, considering the limitations of the data, and designing a solution. This is beneficial for finding a technical solution to an organization’s problem.

However, alignment between data-savvy participants may clash with those who are more “data skeptical.” These participants may have an inherent or developed mistrust of technical solutions, or could be concerned about the sharing and use of their data. Gaining the trust of such participants is vital, as the most useful data projects are inclusive and participatory. This is why it is important to devote adequate time (in our case, no less than two hours) to getting to know the organizations and the people they serve. We believe that bringing empathy to data science is foundational to addressing problems that may emerge during the scope-a-thon, so that tangential ideas and suspicions are not barriers to work that is tied directly to the mission.

Scope-a-thons are a learning and community building experience for everyone involved.

In professional consultations, scoping is as much a learning and community building exercise as it is a problem solving event. Everybody participating in the event will learn from the process. Neither the participants, nor the organizational representatives, nor the constituents have ready-made solutions to the problems a scope-a-thon seek to address. We imagine people learning on multiple levels from understanding the practical utility of a data-driven solution to developing a nuanced understanding of a social or organization-specific resource issue. The underlying skill we focus on is problem solving.

Scope-a-thon organizers should reiterate that learning and community building is central to the process throughout the event. We did this by recruiting and training team facilitators to seek equitable contributions from each team member, centralizing empathy as fundamental to scoping, and encouraging that all participants attend presentations to understand the problems each organization was bringing to the event.

This point is especially poignant when thinking about an aspirational long term goal of the scope-a-thon. It is our firm belief that beyond problem solving, the scope-a-thon is an initiation to a set of relationships and a process that can find long-term homes in a space shared between organizations, institutional partners, and individual participants. Building these relationships can only lead to better, more collaborative problem solving down the line.