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Fighting Data Poverty: How Simple Technologies Can Make Research on Marginalized Communities Easier for Everyone

March 2, 2016
Gabe Schwartz
Gabe Schwartz
Analyst, Social & Economic Policy   Julia Bradshaw
Julia Bradshaw
Research Assistant, Social & Economic Policy As researchers dedicated to the public good, part of our mandate is to ensure that marginalized communities receive the research attention they need and deserve. But research on these populations can be uniquely challenging, as they are sometimes hard to find (migrant farmworkers, undocumented immigrants, etc.) or are homogenized or ignored in standard research databases, a problem sometimes referred to as “data poverty.”

These challenges impinge upon all key elements of research, from study design to data collection and analysis, which can delay or derail the research process. In turn, data poverty prevents policymakers and practitioners from developing the kind of targeted, effective policies and programs that meaningfully support such marginalized communities. Here’s the good news: there are simple ways to make research on marginalized populations easier and more efficient, thereby helping to better inform and drive policy conversations forward.

One place to start is finding ways to make data on marginalized communities more accessible. Indeed, finding sources of data that reflect the realities of marginalized people’s lives and identities and can meaningfully inform program and policy decision-making is often a major roadblock (as doctoral students, program administrators, and community leaders reading this can attest). Researchers can spend enormous amounts of time and energy scanning available data sets to identify the variables they need to address their questions of interest; even then, these efforts infrequently yield a full picture of existing data. Finding the right data set can be so daunting that it may even deter researchers from exploring less familiar subject areas.

Take, for example, the lack of available and accessible data on Hispanic children and families, which has significantly constrained researchers’ abilities to understand how Hispanic children and families—as well as specific subsets of the Hispanic population—are faring. With increasing numbers of Hispanics in the US, and an increasingly large share of children growing up in poverty who are Hispanic, research on the Hispanic population is ever more urgently needed for policymakers to support the health and well-being of this marginalized group (and, by extension, that of the nation). To spark this exploration, researchers need to facilitate the process of finding, accessing, and using the data that is already available.

New Tools Help Researchers Better Understand Hispanic Community

A promising initiative is doing just that. Abt’s recent work with the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families—a partnership between Abt Associates, Child Trends, and several universities (UNC Greensboro, NYU, and UMD College Park)—is working to harness available data to advance policy research on Hispanics in the United States. Notably, along with Abt’s Social Equity & Empowerment Methods Center, the Center is focused not only on conducting new research, but also on developing resources to support the broader research community. In a recently published brief series, the Center underscores the challenges and opportunities inherent in conducting research on Hispanic children’s use of early care and education (ECE). The goal of this effort is to understand what data are currently available in existing, publicly-available data sets; describe what kinds of research can be done using them; and then distribute this information to researchers in the field. In fact, this is the same legwork every researcher must do before they can get any analysis done. It’s a tall order: publicly available datasets are often immense, the availability of specific information on ECE is sporadic and unstandardized, and more detailed information is often hidden away in reams of appendices. This is not the only way for people to find their data! More to the point, it isn’t a good way. 
To tackle this barrier, Abt’s team at the Hispanic Center constructed a simple interactive tool to display information for data on Hispanic families in a comprehensive, easily digestible format. It offers a number of functionalities that help researchers find what they are looking for quickly. Users can filter datasets to just those that contain desired data elements, then hover over individual cells to see more detail—e.g., how questions were asked, what response categories are available for each question, and where to go to find more information on each data set. Instead of spending months searching for and then pouring through dozens of datasets to identify the appropriate dataset—or wading painstakingly through codebooks and appendices—users can now easily find the right source of data for their research in minutes. The tool is meant as a “one-stop shop” for data related to Hispanic children’s use of early care and education services, now part of a series: one brief on Hispanic families’ ECE utilization, a second brief on their ECE preferences, and a third brief on dissecting the heterogeneity of Hispanic families more generally.

These interactive tools leverage innovative (and free!) technologies to save researchers from data drudgery. The tools make data more open and accessible, letting researchers focus more of their time and energy on conducting much-needed research to combat social and economic marginalization. They are simple, easy, and important. It’s time to start using them.
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