Data Futures in Youth Work

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Data Futures in Youth Work

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The purpose of this dissertation is to understand the impacts of social service data collection and use on the lives of young people and those that serve them, and to offer ways for youth, nonprofits, and funders to positively evolve these systems. It grew from three simple questions without clear answers: what’s happening, how’s it working, and what’s possible? My colleagues and I have the privilege of sitting in many gatherings - with young people, staff in youth-serving organizations, and non-profit organizational leaders. In all of these organizations, we heard the ripple effects of these questions, but never the questions themselves. We witnessed organizational leaders being pitched database systems that would double revenues and algorithmic analysis that would improve youth outcomes and save money. One message became clear to me: data is in - as in, in fashion, in vogue, in-spiring. But data for what? For what purpose? In service of whom? Why now? Why being sold by a shiny corporation? We tried asking these questions. In some places we engaged in productive conversation. In other places we were ignored. But as we peeled back the curtain (and yes, it often seems there’s a Wizard of Oz figure lurking somewhere in the shadows), the too-good-to-be-true promises often turned out to be just that. Or, were at least unproven. Perhaps worse, the significant costs of these new technologies - including the human costs - were often untallied. This dissertation aims to provide answers to these questions. It is a summary of three papers on the subject, addressing these questions from the lenses of young people, staff working in youth-serving organizations, and at the organizational level. Real Big Data: How We Know Who We Know in Social Service Work asked youth how they experienced data in their institutional lives (school, after-school, etc.) and how they feel data could be used to support them. Their answers are enlightening and provide a significantly different, though not infeasible, alternative framework for data use in youth-serving organizations. Surfacing Data Use Practices in Youth Work: Present State of the Field and Next Steps discussed this same question with youth and social service workers. Their answers offer examples of the ways organizational drives for data collection and use are changing how work gets done - for better and worse. Combined, they form a framework for better data use. Bigger Data, Less Wisdom: The Need for More Inclusive Collective Intelligence in Social Service Work examines trends in data collection/use and identifies the importance of more inclusive efforts toward data in youth-serving organizations.



University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation.December 2019. Major: Social Work. Advisors: Ross VeLure Roholt, C. David Hollister. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 131 pages.

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Fink, Alexander. (2019). Data Futures in Youth Work. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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