on our minds

why we changed our team name

For many years Metis Associates has had a distinct Information Technology (IT) unit, which functioned as a third leg to the other two Metis expertise areas: Program Evaluation and Grant Development. Lately it has been on our minds that technology has changed, and we have changed; so we decided to change our team name.

When Metis was incorporated, 40 years ago, we rented access to a mainframe computer. Today most people carry more powerful computers in the palms of their hands. More and more people use computers at work, whether for word processing, sonographic imaging, creating budget spreadsheets, or managing client records. We don’t hear a lot of people clamoring to do away with computers at work, but we do hear a lot of dissatisfaction with the cost and gracefulness of software for business operations, particularly from our clients at non-profits and government organizations.

As data and data processors have become ubiquitous at work, the role of our “IT” group has changed. Our role is no longer to make technology available, but to help clients find an approach to using their data that feels right for them and makes information accessible to the people who are invested in the outcome of their work.

Our core approach to using data in mission-driven organizations has two components. First, we believe that the processes around using data should be inclusive. Second, we believe that if data are used properly for continuous improvement within an institution, they can benefit the aim of improving society.

We help organizations build their data systems and capacity to improve their management and use of information. Doing this in a way that is inclusive means that we meet an organization’s staff where they are, and involve stakeholders in data decision-making. Our clients’ staffs are united by a need for timely and accurate information—and sometimes also by a frustration with the information management tools they have at hand. Upgrades to tools and adjustments to data practices in service of an organization’s specific data circumstances are within the reach of any staff person. Often this means we help someone who feels nervous working through data to make a little checklist of the steps they need to do to, for example, back up a spreadsheet each month. Other times we help someone to articulate a question that they have about their organization in a way that lets them find the answer in data they can access.

In keeping with our corporate mission, we aim to help organizations use data to promote social justice. One way we can do this is by framing data around the policies that could be promoting justice. For example, in our work with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative we help county-level government offices to calculate the rate at which adults send youth to detention despite a low score on a so-called “assessment of risk.” This helps to understand institutional and adult behaviors that may harm young people by placing them in a dangerous environment away from their centers of support. We focus our analysis on institutions rather than youth because our role is to promote the use of data to inform institutional decisions, not young people’s decisions.

This exciting approach to using data—focused on inclusive processes and systems-change results—undergirds the work that we do, but day to day a lot of the work may seem mundane. We specify and build data sets and databases. We engage stakeholders in the process of designing data systems and data work-flows. We write code in a variety of programming languages and we program systems on time and on budget. We help clients marshal tools to display their data effectively. We design and document data-processing and quality-assurance procedures. For us these tasks are sometimes as tedious as they sound, but we are also on this team because of the joy we get from uncovering and fixing an error in a data set, or automating a process that had previously been driving a client bananas.

To describe the work of our team, we want a name that conveys not just that we have technology and know how to use it. We want a name that says that we have an approach to using data—in our case, an approach focused on inclusion and on using data to drive systems change. Therefore Information Management will replace Information Technology as the name of the team going forward.

– Anna Minsky, Senior Research Associate