Community Matters: To Collect or Not To Collect

Community Matters is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Last week I moderated a conversation on Covid-19’s impact on Black women and girls, specifically around health and education. It was an important discussion, and the topic naturally raises questions about data collection.

We highlighted several topics including the current vaccination rates, the myths preventing someone from taking the vaccine and how some students have benefited emotionally and psychologically from learning in a virtual environment, away from the pressures and microaggressions they face at school. In order to find solutions to these challenges, good data collection is critical.

While there are always people who do not want to provide their demographic information, I am a firm believer that the disaggregated data should be readily available and easy to understand. For example, Arlington County sets a great example by providing easy to read statistics divided into different categories. Arlington County’s COVID -19 dashboard clearly provides Covid-19 data by race and ethnicity, age, etc.

It feels like it was not so long ago when there was a significant debate about whether data on minority groups should be collected, whether someone should be asked their race, and how it should be used. Some believed we shouldn’t call attention to anyone’s race or differences in our “post racial” society, and others simply didn’t want to acknowledge that inequities existed. Today, I think there are more organizations and individuals who see the value in collecting demographic data to better understand where the disparities exist.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation uses the following principles when outlining their data collection practices:

Principle 1: Survey respondents, whether internal or external to our organization, must be asked to report on the same set of demographic measures.

Principle 2: Survey respondents must only be asked to report demographic data for themselves.

Principle 3: Inclusivity of all identities is key across all demographic measures.

Principle 4: Transparency is important, but sharing demographic data should be an anonymous, confidential, and voluntary process.

Principle 5: The storage and use of collected demographic data and any related dissemination efforts must be disclosed prior to surveying respondents.

Additionally, one should consider that sensitive questions can affect your outcomes, demographic questions should generally be placed at the end of the survey, and you should explain why you are collecting the data.

Despite the fact that data collection has evolved, we should always advocate for more disaggregation. For example, as I seek to encourage more advocacy for Black women and girls in Arlington and throughout the Commonwealth, it would be helpful to have more statistics on our current status.

There are many components to consider as we strive to build a stronger Arlington, some of them more glamorous than others. While data is not always top of mind, it is a critical part of our work to ensure a more equitable community.

Krysta Jones has lived in Arlington since 2004 and is active in local politics and civic life. This column is in no way associated with or represents any person, government, organization or body — except Krysta herself.