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Researchers recommend data sharing as a step toward improving family services

A new report from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that a big step toward healthier, happier kids in North Carolina may be as simple as facilitating a better process for organizations to share data about the children and families they serve.

The researchers surveyed North Carolina organizations that use data to develop early childhood programs and services, with 206 participants representing 40 communities. The survey was funded through the federal Preschool Development Grant B-5 and was designed to support North Carolina’s Early Childhood Action Plan, the statewide initiative led by the Office of the Governor and the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to improve early childhood health, safety and education by 2025. (Read the full report here.)

“What we learned is that most early childhood programs in our state don’t have any agreements to share data between them,” said Paul Lanier, an associate professor at UNC School of Social Work and an author of the report, with UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health program coordinator Katherine Bryant and Master of Social Work student Elizabeth Nicholls.

“Maybe a mission organization is working with families that are homeless, and the local schools know that there are children in those families who are frequently absent from school and are not meeting benchmarks — but there’s no system in place for those organizations to share that information with each other,” Lanier explained.

“As a result, organizations often aren’t able to work together on a solution that might address both,” he added.

A more integrated system of early childhood data would mean better outcomes for families and would support the work of the people providing these services. “By sharing data, we keep the same information from being collected two, three, four times by different agencies,” said Lanier.

“This saves time and money and allows early childhood professionals to focus on expanding and improving services,” he said. “So what we ultimately get are families who are getting the services they need and happier, healthier kids.”

In concert with the state’s Early Childhood Action Plan, which tracks progress on 10 goals measured by improvements on key statewide data points, the NC Early Childhood Integrated Data System (ECIDS) collects data from NC Pre-K, Food & Nutrition Services (SNAP), Work First and other public programs in order to make data-informed policy decisions supporting children and families across North Carolina.

Outside of these public services, though, data sharing is limited. “This is the first time we’ve ever asked our early childhood community, the people who work with our youngest children and their families, about their data needs,” shared Rebecca Planchard, senior early childhood policy advisor for DHHS.

“We heard loud and clear from this survey and the report that our communities want to make better decisions with the data they collect, and they want to be smarter in sharing data to support our young children and families,” she added.

For example, many of the survey participants reported that they lacked the resources to collect and maintain early childhood data on a broad scale. The highest perceived barrier to generating primary data identified through the survey was cost. Organizations vary widely in the data they collect, what they share and how those data are interpreted.

Implementing these changes will not be easy. For example, privacy concerns must be considered in any situation where data is shared across agencies and organizations. But other states have managed to overcome these barriers to create integrated data systems that are broader in scope. The researchers point to South Carolina, which has adopted a system that integrates data from many different sources in state and local organizations that address human services, including data from emergency room visits, public education units, juvenile justice administration and other areas of concern.

That isn’t the case in North Carolina, where the state-level early childhood data system focuses primarily on data collected by DHHS units. Agreements among additional agencies and organizations to share data is a first step in expanding integrated data collection across the state, and the state is optimistic about the impact this will have on North Carolina’s families.

“UNC’s report is the first of its kind to look holistically at how we use and share early childhood data across North Carolina,” Planchard said. “This survey allowed us to identify where the gaps are, and will help us take action to better use the information we collect to serve children and families across the state.”

The project described was supported by the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five Initiative (PDG B-5), Grant Number 90TP0046-01-00, from the Office of Child Care, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of Child Care, the Administration for Children and Families, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.