Infographics and Evaluation

Just over a week ago, I started taking a free online course on Infographics and Data Visualization, taught by journalist Alberto Cairo and hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Knight Centre for Journalism in the Americas. Although journalism is not one of Strong Root’s core activities, I’m looking forward to learning more about how to visually present data findings – after all, what use is research and evaluation if the data is locked up behind jargon and massive tables of numbers? Ensuring that the research methods are participatory and accessible to everyone whose voice needs to be heard is only the start: the findings should likewise be understandable and relevant to all key stakeholders.
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News – Saskatoon Community Foundation workshop

The Saskatoon Community Foundation is holding a grant writing workshop this coming Monday, January 21, 1-3pm, at the Cosmo Civic Centre (3130 Laurier Drive). The workshop is free and will focus on applying to the Saskatoon Community Foundation’s grants, but will also provide useful pointers for applying to other grantors as well.

There doesn’t seem to be any information on the Foundation’s website about this event (I learned about it from their email list – if you want to join it, there’s a signup button on the main page of their website), so if you have any questions or would like to RSVP you can contact Don Ewles by email or phone at 306-665-1766.

Blogging Stats and Evaluation

As you can see on the bottom of any page on this site, Strongrootsconsulting.ca is “Proudly Powered by WordPress“, an open-source blogging platform that in recent years has expanded to include Content Management System (CMS) features for websites like this one. I’ve used WordPress in the past for both professional and personal projects and have found it to be a versatile tool: friendly enough for beginners to get up and running quickly, while preserving the ability for more experienced hands to dive into code and tweak to heart’s content. If you need a quick website set up for an organization or new project, WordPress.com provides you with a free site in the form of http://yourproject.wordpress.com , with the option to set up your own domain name (www.yourproject.com) later on.

Anyway, what got me started on this post was a summary of my “2012 year in blogging“, prepared automatically by a WordPress service called JetPack. Pulling together site visit statistics into a visually-appealing page, I’ve learned interesting tidbits like the number of visitors to my site last year could fill four Boeing 787 aircraft, and that while most of my visitors were from Canada and the US, I also saw interest from Russia, Germany, India, and Argentina (those international visits likely coming from EvalCentral showcasing my posts). Although the system is not perfect – for example, it includes static pages such as the homepage on its list of popular blog posts – it does provide a good overview of last year’s stats.
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Site Update – New Year’s Grants

I’m sure many non-profit organizations would love to find some additional funding under the tree this year, but barring that, there are some grant opportunities coming up early in the New Year to consider. New to the Saskatoon Grants section on this site are three grants from the City of Saskatoon. The first two, the Community Grant Program and the Urban Aboriginal Grant Program, support local sports, cultural, and recreational programs and are due January 15, while the Environmental Grants support environmental programs with a due date of March 1. Also due early in 2013 are applications for the Saskatoon Health Region’s Community Grants (January 15) and Letters of Intent for the Saskatoon Community Foundation’s Quality of Life grant program (February 1).

All in all, lots of opportunities to start off the New Year right! Remember that Strong Roots Consulting is available to help throughout the process, including overall strategic planning, program development, grant preparation, and program evaluation. I’ll be taking some time off during the holidays but will still be reachable by email: I’ll be back to the normal routine and available to connect by phone or in person starting January 2.

Happy holidays and all the best for 2013!

The Co-Working Life

December marks the five-month anniversary of Strong Roots Consulting (five months and one week, if you use the July 11th date of my first post), and six months since I moved back to the prairies after living in Ontario for twelve years. There are many factors to credit for my surviving and thriving through these twin life changes of moving to a new city and making the jump from regular employment to consulting, but today I’d like to pay homage to where I work, The Two Twenty coworking space.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, coworking is basically shared office space. For a flat fee (daily, weekly, or monthly), anyone can gain access to a coworking room set up with desks, tables, armschairs and couches: amenities include wireless internet, a kitchenette, free drip coffee (there’s also a great coffeeshop, Collective Coffee, on the premises for fancier caffeinated beverages), a set allowance on their black and white printer, storage lockers, and access to a meeting room. Those on the unlimited monthly tier can also get a key to the premises for 24/7 use (access is otherwise restricted to the coffeeshop hours).

The advantages to this type of work arrangement go far beyond these tangibles. By lowering the financial and logistical barriers for space (the most expensive tier is only $200 a month, no lease or long-term agreement required), the space attracts a variety of people: new and established entrepreneurs, students, university professors on sabbatical, and people new to town looking for somewhere more congenial to working than a coffeeshop or library. The building also houses more traditional office space, with tenants including media companies, web developers, an immigration lawyer, a real estate agent, and several non-profit organizations. Staff from these companies will sometimes come out and work in the coworking space for a change of scenary, and many will use the kitchenette facilities for lunch. In other words, there is a wide range of individuals and organizations working in a space conducive to chance encounters, conversations, and networking – perfect for someone like me who’s just starting in town and in the industry.

From my relatively-short time in this space I’ve made a number of connections both professional and personal, and I can honestly say that I’m more productive here compared to working from home. Being at The Two Twenty has also provided me with some insight into the interaction of work and space, particularly for non-profits. A common metaphor in that sector is the danger of “building silos”, where organizations isolate themselves and miss the potential benefits of pooling knowledge and resources with other groups. Silos in this analogy are usually viewed in terms of organizational practices and the influence of historical interactions: for example, two groups may ignore the potential to work together because of a past conflict, even though the circumstances have changed and the principal actors in that past incident are no longer involved with either organization! However, silos can also be created and sustained by physical and spatial factors: a space like The Two Twenty that encourages informal interaction can help break down barriers and encourage the sharing of information, and ultimately the development of collaborations and longer-lasting relationships.

Co-working and hub spaces like The Two Twenty are still a relatively new phenomenon in North America, so the availability of such spaces and how they’re set up may vary widely from city to city. Also, the model may not be amenable for all types of non-profit organizations, such as those that provide direct services to a large number of clients. That being said, non-profits should keep watch for opportunities to “break out” of their silos and connect with colleagues from other organizations, even those outside the specific area of focus: these connections, even just over a cup of coffee, can spark new ideas and lead to creative solutions for those complex issues we see in our communities every day.

Value

One resource that I have started to draw on are the websites and particularly blogs of others doing similar work in the fields of evaluation and community practice. Among the useful sites I have found are Chris Lysy’s EvalCentral which brings together several dozen blogs (including this one) that have a common interest in evaluation, the American Evaluation Association’s Tip a Day blog (which will feature a post from yours truly next Wednesday), and the Community Psychology Practice blog, administered through the Practice Council of the Society for Community Research and Action. As a new independent consultant who is still working to build local connections and community, these sites have been invaluable in introducing me to new resources and prompting reflection on my practice.

A recent post from Emery Evaluation (via Eval Central) asks which of five standards from the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation is “most essential, relevant, and central to your everyday work as an evaluator”. Before reading this article I wasn’t familiar with these specific standards, but they look to be a good starting point for discussion. Of course there are many standards and values, even within this one field: for example, the American Evaluation Association and the Canadian Evaluation Society have their own values / ethics statements. Deciding on one (or several) statements to declare adherence to is an interesting point for future debate, but for today’s reflection I’ll stay with those brought forward by Ann Emery.

My first thought when reviewing the list is that it’s hard to pick just one as the “most” important. These standards work together: for example, the Utility of evaluation findings will obviously be diminished if its Accuracy is in question. Conversely, there will be tension among values or standards – spending time on meta-evaluative activities (Accountability) can take resources away from the actual evaluation and thus can decrease Feasibility – so perhaps there is some benefit in choosing one to help provide guidance when they clash.

I was originally leaning towards Utilty. After all, my thinking went, evaluation cannot be done for its own sake, there has to be some purpose in telling the story of what happened to provide guidance for current development or future work. Before doing anything with that conclusion, I then read a blog post from Community Psychology Practice on the impact of “Big Data” for our practice. That post suggests that community psychology practioners can make use of their training as social scientists to help interpret the huge amounts of data being generated in our world while connecting with and respecting the unique experiences of individuals and communities, an idea that resonates strongly with my past work and future aspirations.

So, I think the most important value for me, the first among equals, is what JCSEE labelled as “Propriety” but may be better referred to as “Ethics” or simply “Respect”. For me, evaluation has to recognize the rights of those affected by the research – program participants/clients, staff, partners, organizations, communities – and be responsive to their needs. Another way to view this approach is ensuring that the whole evaluation enterprise with its data, models, and theories continues to reflects the human scale and has a positive impact on the ground level. As with any set of values, there will inevitably be tensions and the need to seek balance between competing demands, but this basic value of respect and understanding is one that I want to keep first and foremost in my mind when working in the community.

Site Update – Evaluation, Grants, and More Resources!

Strong Roots is continually evolving, so it makes sense that the website would reflect that change too! The section formerly known as Community-Based Research under Activities has been renamed to Research & Evaluation. The rationale for this move is explored in a previous post, but what it comes down to is that I see all of my work (not just research) at Strong Roots as being grounded in the community, and I’m becoming more comfortable with the “evaluator” title, as long as that word is footnoted with an explanation of what evaluation is to me.

On that note, besides getting a new title, the Research & Evaluation section has been expanded to further explain my approach to those activities and also links to resource pages on participatory research methods and a new one on developmental evaluation. If you’re at all wondering how research and evaluation can help your organization, take a look at those pages and drop me a line!

Under resources, the Saskatoon Grants section has also received some TLC to make it easier to navigate. Grants are now listed on separate pages by the type of funder (Collaborative Funding Partnership, Government and Foundations, Non-Profits, and Corporate – the last one includes some new additions to the list). I struggled with how to best sort these funding opportunities; my decision to go by type of funder came from the ease of categorization compared to other schemes such as type of projects funded, which could lead to the same grant being listed multiple times and be subject to change if an organization’s priorities changed. I’ll try this method for now, but may change it in the future if I figure out a better way. Of course, if you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments below!

Powerful Stranger

It’s been a while since I blogged about one of the chapters from Getting to Maybe. I think now is the right time to return to that book after getting a refresher on developmental evaluation (which has been described as the “practice” to Getting to Maybe’s “theory”) and because the chapter on the Powerful Stranger might resonate with organizations preparing grant applications right now. 🙂

Any social innovation that begins to show results will inevitably encounter what the authors of Getting to Maybe refer to as Powerful Strangers. Power as defined in the book refers to the control of resources, be they physical (money, space), social (connections, networks), or human (effort, talents): any of these forms can be used to maintain the status quo or to instigate change. Social innovators usually start with a surplus of personal energy and enthusiasm, but at some point they will need to focus on how to unlock resources to further their cause, including money and support from powerful individuals that can open doors previously impenetrable.
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Site Updates – Approach and Resources

Although I have dialled back the pace of posting to the blog since returning from last week’s conference, don’t think that the website has stayed static in that time! Building on a post from September, I’ve distilled the essence of the Strong Roots approach to four elements: Connect, Empower, Change, and Share. The last one, which wasn’t discussed in the original blog post, encompasses my belief of sharing resources, namely information, as best embodied through this blog and the Resources section. The Share component of the Approach page also gives a brief explanation of the Creative Commons licence used for site content: in case you were wondering about the icon in the bottom left of each page, here’s your chance to learn more.

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AEA Conference – Day 4

I’ll admit, today my energy and enthusiasm level at the conference was a bit lower compared to the other days. There’s likely a couple of reasons for that, ranging from a somewhat earlier start time today and yesterday compared to the first two days, to the accumulated effects of being away from home. However, I think the main reason lies in the shift from the pre-conference workshops to the main conference itself. The workshops were longer affairs (minimum half-day, maximum two days): the conference sessions, in contrast, range from 45 to 90 minutes and are usually subdivided into separate topics and speakers who may be have as little as 15 minutes. Exposure to a wide range of presenters and ideas are perhaps hallmarks of any conference, but information overload is a real danger. Likewise, meeting other attendees beyond a cursory “Where are you from and what do you do” is much easier in a workshop where you’ll be interacting with them repeatedly over a day or two. Finally, the transition from pre-conference workshops to conference proper entailed a change of venue from a hotel’s meeting rooms to a rather large convention centre, the latter of which seems to perfectly replicate the feeling of time- and placelessness of a large airport, including the disorienting effects. If I wasn’t flying back to Saskatoon tonight, I would probably have paced myself a bit more over the past few days, but in any case I’m glad the workshops came first.

That being said, I’m thankful to have attended several useful sessions today, most of them on the theme of participatory evaluation and generally moving data collection and presentation beyond the standard surveys and graphs. In fact, one session led by a father and daughter team (he’s a graphic designer, she’s an evaluation researcher) raised considerations about how to present information in a way that clearly communicates your ideas (no Comic Sans font, please!) without the use of bar charts or line graphs. Another workshop introduced the World Cafe model of small group discussion that’s structured to provide a safe space to generate and share ideas, and the final session I attended highlighted different “adhesive formats” for data collection – think dots, stickers and labels instead of checkboxes and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires.

Although today marks my last day at the conference, I have many more ideas and resources to share than I have been able to record in the last few posts. I probably won’t maintain the daily writing schedule once I get back, but there will be at least one or two more posts covering some additional topics from this experience. I also plan to post under the Resource section some brief summaries of the participatory methods I learned about, along with links to websites with more information.

All in all, I had a great time at the conference, and while next year’s event is a bit further afield in Washington (DC), I would seriously consider going again!