Dr. Lori Thomas
By Lori Thomas
Our community’s challenges extend past any one silo, organization or jurisdictional line. Public education systems address hunger, health, homelessness, and other impacts of poverty. Our jails and prisons are mental health and substance use treatment facilities. Our workforce development efforts must circumvent fragmented transportation, distant and still unaffordable housing before people can get jobs with a promise of economic mobility.
To do effective work on any one challenge, our community must look across organizations and systems. That’s why the Institute for Social Capital is becoming the Charlotte Regional Data Trust, an identity that better reflects our role and aspirations in the region.
The Board of Directors of the Institute for Social Capital (ISC) voted to change the organization’s name to the Charlotte Regional Data Trust (Data Trust) in June. The Data Trust is a community-university partnership that links data across service and organizational silos in order to provide information we can act on -to improve services, to see if programs are working, and to show where we need better approaches or better policies.
ISC was developed as a nonprofit in 2005 to increase the community’s capacity for data-informed decision-making and foster university research that impacts the community. Early partners included UNC Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the United Way of Central Carolinas, and the Foundation For The Carolinas. The Data Trust today includes over 40 community public and nonprofit organizations.
Why a Data Trust?
A trust is a relationship in which a third party holds assets on behalf of beneficiaries. As a data trust, we hold and integrate data in order to benefit partners and the community at large.
“Trust” also conveys the central work of this community asset – to build trust among stakeholders. Trust is required to look beyond the boundaries of our organizations and sectors. From the individuals whose data we hold, to the organizations that collect and share it, to the community and university researchers that make sense of patterns in the data, trust and trustworthiness are required for the Data Trust to reach its fullest potential. In this way, the name Charlotte Regional Data Trust describes both what we do and who we aspire to be in our community.
The Work Ahead
We do not take our new name lightly. There is work ahead to build trust and capacity. We are mindful of three key tasks before us to build trust as we live into our new name:
Ensuring Equity and Representation: Some of our most important work ahead as a Data Trust is to meaningfully include oversight and leadership from those overrepresented in data we hold, specifically Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people and people experiencing poverty. This work will benefit us all – when we include those with deep experience in our services and programs, we ask better questions, and develop more applicable solutions.
The Data Trust will structure this work through the continued development of a Community Data Advisory Committee. This new committee will join the Board of Directors and the Data and Research Oversight Committee monitoring and governing the ethical use of the data we hold.
We are also examining racial equity and representation through the lens of one of our community collaborations around the use of data – the Violence Prevention Data Collaborative. The Data Trust and the Collaborative were recently selected as a part of the first Equity in Practice Learning Community cohort at Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy (AISP), a technical assistance organization for integrated data systems. We are approaching this work at the level of our leadership and governance, as well as with our end-users – those transforming the data we hold into information to act on.
Becoming Proactive: Historically, a relatively small group of organizations and researchers have been the main users of our data. Institute staff time has been spent primarily linking data and shepherding data sharing agreements to respond to these research requests. With new staff positions and the development of improved technology underway, datasets will be available faster. With these advances, we can shift our approach to the work – continuing to be responsive to requests, but also building data partnerships and using data proactively. To build trust, we must demonstrate value.
The Board also voted in June to serve in an advisory role for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, guiding and monitoring development and implementation of the Institute’s strategic research and engagement agenda. This decision provides greater community input on the work of the Urban Institute and it aligns the strategic research agenda of the Charlotte Urban Institute and the Data Trust. It also aligns staffing around shared research priorities, increasing the capacity of the Data Trust to provide information to act on.
Navigating Privacy Laws and Ethical Use of Data: Federal and state privacy laws governing use of data are complex, but with specific conditions, allow data sharing to improve programs and services. Interpretations of these laws abound and vary across organizations, sometimes creating barriers to data sharing beyond what is required by government statute. Efforts to protect privacy for individuals seeking services can create barriers to improving the services they seek and ensuring that they are effective. Obviously, both individual privacy and effective programs are important, and finding data sharing solutions that accomplish both remains a guiding goal. This work requires ongoing trust and verification.
The Data Trust works to accomplish this relationally, meeting data partners where they are, as well as legally, with the support of UNC Charlotte’s General Counsel, Jesh Humphrey, and his office. Mr. Humphrey has provided legal counsel and support for the Data Trust since 2012.
Join the Work
The Charlotte Regional Data Trust is a shared community resource built and sustained for community benefit. You can get involved in a number of ways:
- Your organization can become a data partner. If your organization provides health and human services to residents in the Charlotte region, you can explore the organizational and community benefits of becoming a data partner with us.
- You can join or nominate someone for the Community Data Advisory Committee. If you are a part of a group that is overrepresented in our data or you have lived experience in our human service delivery systems and would like to join CDAC, let us know. You can also nominate someone.
- You can request to use the data. If you have a research project that benefits the Charlotte region, you can request to use our data. In the next year, we will launch our new data request and access portal. Until our infrastructure improvements are complete, you can apply here to use our data and meet with staff to discuss.
- You can invest in our work. We have been in the midst of a silent $3.5 million campaign to raise funding to improve our technical infrastructure. With a lead investment of $2 million from UNC Charlotte, and key gifts from the Bank of America, the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, the Knight Foundation, Atrium Health, The Duke Endowment, The Foundation for The Carolinas, and the United Way of Central Carolinas, we are now less than $355,000 from our goal.
Please reach out to me at LoriThomas@uncc.edu if we can engage you in this work.
Dr. Lori Thomas is Director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Regional Data Trust. She is an Associate Professor of Social Work in the College of Health and Human Services.