Jul 24 2022

Musing about data analytics in faith-based organizations

Published by at 8:11 pm under Communities of practice,Learning,R

I’m calling for a Birds-of-a-Feather session for faith-based organizations at the Rstudio::Conf this week. I thought I should write down some of my musings to be clearer about where I’m coming from. All of these issues come up in the context of creating a “Societal Mirror” for Shambhala that combines administrative and survey data with a view toward community reflection and renewal. I have been using R at every point in the process that I describe below.

Faith-based organizations (FBOs) have some unique characteristics that have a bearing on data collection, analysis and use. A look at FBOs as context for data analytics can help us:

  • Identify issues that enable us to see more deeply or can limit our efforts
  • Question the supposedly neutral “empirical” framing with world views that are path- or faith-oriented
  • Understand the power of a traditional “empirical” or even “corporate” orientation to accomplish the non-capitalist goals of an FBO
  • Realize that we can’t just hop out of our point of view: we can only work toward being aware of it

Need to think about different phases of the entire process of data analytics:

  • Purpose of analytics
    • The data collection and interpretation may be motivated by an general curiosity or in response to a specific purpose or situation in the FBO
    • The explicit or tacit purpose of analytics colors the whole process.
    • The purpose tends to evolve over time; theoretically there is a feedback loop so that more and better data impacts understanding of purpose
    • Research about “today” is contextualized or limited by long-standing traditions based on revered notions about self, society, the world, etc.
    • One purpose for data collection is based on the reality that religious communities / FBOs are in competition for
      • attention
      • money
      • viability
      • relevance
      • Making a difference in the world
    • Is the purpose clear enough to justify funding or motivate energy?
  • Data Collection
    • Sampling & scope of data collection
      • There are different frames for understanding the populations and groups involved
      • Reaching core members and those with different interests or degrees of peripherality is key to gathering data that will be meaningful to various audiences.
    • The design of questions is a compromise between different purposes and cultures.
    • Data collection is subject to an implicit contract with subjects:
      • Who is the data for?
      • What will happen with it?
      • Why would you care to participate in a data collection process?
  • Analysis
    • Multiple efforts to analyze the data are important
      • Diverse interpretations or approaches increase robustness but are costly.
      • Process of achieving convergence of interpretations matters takes a lot of time.
    • Different time frames are in competition: real-time responses  vs long-term inquiry. The “ancient ones” were empiricists on some level, too.
  • Use of analytics
    • Different audiences will use the results of data analysis in different ways.  Those audiences can be in conflict.
      • Organization decision-makers
      • Community leadership (elders)
      • the rank and file – whatever that means.
      • community periphery (same patterns as for data gathering)
      • critics
    • How to design and publish findings?
    • Having productive conversations about results depends on the design and facilitation of conversions among different groups
      • The skills involved in the entire process are extremely diverse.
      • Iteration is key

Need to think about different levels of scale:

  • Understanding individual experience: very important… An ethnographic project a different kind of data.
  • Group level (special interest groups, leadership groups, congregations) shapes perspectives
    • The “subject” of study is squishy
      • “Individual” experience
      • “Relationships”
      • Social “Environment”
    • Always need to watch for the “us” versus “them” trap
  • FBOs all say: “We stand in contrast to the larger society”
  • Looking at FBOs from the outside, societal level
    • Secular decline in America and the rise of “nones”
    • Tendency for FBOs and their communities to identify themselves as separate or “above” society as a whole

Other overarching  issues:

Often FBOs recruit staff for (data gathering, analysis, etc.) from “inside” the community

  • Recruits from inside the community may have an interpretive advantage — or shared blind spots
  • Drawing from a smaller talent pool may limit the breadth or depth of expertise that’s available; very small groups / single individuals make the effort fragile
  • Efforts carried out by small groups can lack diversity or debate about purpose, methods, and uses
  • Especially if leadership has a weak understanding of any part of the process, it becomes easy for that part to be “captured” by a fringe perspective

The alignment between legacy institutions (“administrative or spiritual headquarters”) and the community of adherents is subject to

  • Identity vs community membership vs network participation
  • Multiple meanings of “community” (how expressed & how imagined)
  • Orgs and communities that claim or identify members
  • FBOs and religions can be pro-social or toxic depending on point of view, level of scale, and period of time.
  • Generational change and geographic diversity are centrifugal forces that can test legacy institutions.
  • Time dimension; evolution
  • Unachievable aspirations

Community and org structure matters. (Similar to issues in the “voluntary sector” / nonprofits.) Some traditions are more top-down and centrally controlled than others and that changes over time.

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