Staff Post: Data Considerations

by Claire, our Member Services and Data Systems Manager

March 16, 2023

If you prefer to listen, click here for an audio version of this post.

In 2023 our lives are more online than they've ever been. That means our data, too, is gathered in so many different ways and by countless organizations. I know it frequently gives me pause when I'm asked for information that seems personal or that does not seem aligned or necessary to what I'm trying to accomplish online, so it is perhaps fitting—or ironic—that it’s become an increasing part of my job at the Guild to support our data strategy practices. In the Portal of Transformation, part of my work has been helping to drill deeper into why the Guild uses data: how we collect it respectfully, how we analyze it, and how we use it to inform our work.

To do that, we had to first start with our “why”. There are a ton of reasons for an organization like the Guild to collect information about the folks with whom we engage. One of the reasons for the Portal was to take a step back and to ensure that the Guild’s actions were in alignment with our Racial Equity Guiding Principles and Policies. But to know if we are centering the experiences of those who have been historically marginalized and truly serving all, we need to actually know who that “all” entails, and to make sure that the folks we are reaching represent the full breadth of the community arts education field. For that reason, one specific thing we wanted to make space to review and work on were revisions to the Guild’s demographic survey. For context, at the end of 2021 we began collecting optional demographic data that we hoped could tell us more about who we are serving, while also pointing out gaps in our service. That data asks about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, and wealth (or lack thereof), to name a few topics. Knowing who we are engaging, and perhaps more importantly, who we aren’t, helps to keep us accountable to our communities—reminding us that, while being truly inclusive is difficult, it is essential and necessary to our identity and our mission. 

While that survey felt like an important first step, we didn’t expect to get it exactly right on the first try. Since the initial launch of the survey, under the guidance of Ashley Hare, our Deputy Director of Human Development, we have intentionally asked for feedback from survey respondents to help us know what we are getting wrong, what we are getting right, and what we are missing. The feedback we received has been tremendously valuable. Among what we’ve learned is that, as hard as we tried to be inclusive, we occasionally fell short. Some participants questioned our need to gather data about wealth (a controversial heading title in its own right!), feeling like questions around finances were too intrusive. Others asked us why we ask about wealth and property ownership, but not about debt, which was a great question for us to reflect on.

Another challenge we’ve tried to address from the beginning is the balance between affirming people’s identities, while still being able to analyze data quickly and efficiently. Data practices can already feel academic and detached from humanity. When we narrow the scope of choices a survey respondent has in order to more easily report on them it can be painful and limiting, risking potential erasure and compounding harm that has already historically been done to certain communities. To truly accommodate all of the rich and varied ways through which people identify themselves, a demographic survey would ideally have options for open response, where respondents can fill in any information that feels accurate to themselves. But those free response questions can be difficult to aggregate, as they do not yield the easy categories multiple choice questions do. Multiple choice questions are easy to sort through, but they risk us prioritizing certain identities over others, leaving anyone who does not fit a category we have chosen with the dreaded “other” box into which they must squish their apparently-not-mainstream-enough identity. If we truly want all individuals to be welcomed at and served by the Guild, we need to be careful in how we ask for information so as not to cause harm or discomfort. 

It is important for us to commit to using the data we learn about people to benefit those same people—we cannot take without giving back.

While we contemplate our purpose and methodology, we must also do our best to protect respondent data. At a basic level for the demographic survey, that means doing all we can to ensure that data is anonymized by doing things like not capturing IP addresses. Still, as we’ve seen with various data breaches in the past, like the Equifax breach announced in 2017, even the most secure data systems can fail. Fortunately the Guild does not hold any of the attractive data to hackers that an Equifax does, but we’ll still continue to work to minimize that risk. However, it would be irresponsible of us not to acknowledge that the risk exists. 

We also are aware that data collected in good faith now could theoretically be used for less benevolent purposes in the future. In today’s political climate particularly, data is sometimes used in appalling ways that do not match the Guild’s commitment to its communities. In one terrifying example covered in the Washington Post recently, the Texas attorney general requested gender information from the Texas Department of Public Safety, asking how many people had changed their gender on their driver’s license in the past two years. Public Safety complied, going beyond the original request to provide such data from “state ID cards available from birth, learner’s permits issued to those age 15 and up, commercial licenses, state election certificates, and occupational licenses.” This use of data is chilling in a political climate that has targeted transgender people with precision and sought to criminalize and ostracize trans existence. 

Guild records are not public records, of course, and we would never intentionally allow any data we collected to be used in such a harmful way. Still, such stories are heavy on my mind every time the Guild asks anyone to share personal information with us, and we do not want to cause discomfort for respondents worried about sharing too much. 

Our final consideration with data is how we intend to use it. As mentioned above, our primary purpose for understanding the demographics of our community is to ensure that all communities have a place in the Guild. We want to ensure that no one is left out of the Guild umbrella, and in particular, we want to make sure that the programming and member benefits we offer are useful to a wide range of communities, especially those that have been overlooked in the past. For this reason, it is important for us to commit to using the data we learn about people to benefit those same people—we cannot take without giving back. We understand that no one who fills out the demographic survey should be asked to do so solely for the enrichment of the National Guild. 

Knowing how long it takes to do something thoughtfully, intentionally, and reciprocally, it’s no wonder we all have so many questions and thoughts about next steps. To that end, I am curious as to what questions and thoughts you all may have, and I hope you’ll come to our Portal Cafe on this topic on April 13th to discuss and share. I am grateful for the Portal for allowing us space to interrogate our data collection practices to make sure that they align to the Guild’s values, particularly those around anti-racism and access. When the next draft of this optional survey launches later this year and you see it at the end of a registration form for a Guild event, I hope that you will feel comfortable responding, knowing that we are doing all we can to be responsible stewards of the data it produces. 

Published: March 16, 2023