How Can We Make Systems Work Faster for Early Learning

Recently, for our project work on early childhood care and education, my FSG colleagues and I reviewed the work of a few, well-regarded projects that have been able to employ data and indicators across multiple agencies to track the outcomes of young children. Among the many amazing aspects of these initiatives were that they: 1) involved multiple organizations working collaboratively in a particular sector, 2) coordinated complex technological components, and 3) were initiated by civil society organizations, not government.

Two projects that exemplify these aspects in varying degrees are the Human Early Learning Partnership’s Early Development Instrument (EDI) at the University of British Columbia and the Kids Integrated Data System at the University of Pennsylvania. Both efforts have been underway for more than a decade. Significant time has been invested in designing and building these initiatives to operate at scale. These successful efforts that use data and measurement systems in the service of improving children’s lives challenge us to think about what is possible in often highly complex and under-resourced conditions.

These and other projects we reviewed made me think, “What these innovators are doing is amazing…but is there a way to do it faster?” The technological dimensions of these initiatives cannot be understated, but even with current advances in data systems, accessibility, processing, and visualization, such initiatives take years. We’ve seen similar trends documented in FSG’s Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement report. The question that stuck in my mind was not so much about how much faster can technology facilitate the development of shared measurement systems, but rather:

To what extent will shared data measurement efforts always be limited by the “human factors” of social, organizational, and political dynamics that require time to evolve?

Perhaps, the fundamental problem to dramatically shortening the time required to realize shared measurement systems is the time required to develop and manage the relationships of key actors, the human systems, that facilitate the design and deployment of the technology.

The “human factor” will no doubt always require time and be unpredictable. But one innovative way to think about navigating social systems is through a social network lens. Social networks and partnering with leaders cognizant of network dynamics may be a promising avenue. A social network perspective helps identify influencers, resources, and opportunities. Just as importantly, recent developments in social network analysis may offer strategies for building (“weaving”), maintaining, and changing networks towards greater collaboration and action. Some philanthropic funded initiatives have begun to explore these possibilities.

As we seek better ways to facilitate positive change, I welcome others’ experiences, success, and challenges of how taking a social network approach, combined with technological advances, have helped achieve greater collective and social impact, more quickly.


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