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Cross-Sector Collaboration Links Data to Communities It Can Help

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Intersector Project
July 26, 2016

IP - Data Intermediaries PhotoData gathered by government agencies is often rich with insights into potential challenges faced by communities. Sometimes, community organizations need a bridge to assist them in accessing and utilizing government-gathered data in new ways for the common good. For example, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) was formed in 2000 to help community organizations use data already being produced by local government — crime reports, property records and vital statistics, for example — to strengthen Baltimore neighborhoods.

As a local data intermediary, BNIA bridges data sharing between government agencies and local nonprofit. This allows nonprofits to make more informed policy recommendations for neighborhood revitalization — including increasing the use of housing vouchers to decrease unemployment, for example. BNIA is able to “harness neighborhood data to make underserved people and unresolved issues visible,” a recent Next City editorial reports. “These activities are possible because of local intermediaries, groups that bridge the gap between data and local stakeholders: nonprofits, government agencies, foundations and residents.”

BNIA is supported by the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a peer-learning network of local organizations with a mission to improve low-income neighborhoods by empowering stakeholders to use data in planning, policymaking and community building. NNIP, which is supported by the Urban Institute, recently published a “Guide to Starting a Local Data Intermediary.” The guide discusses the role of a local data intermediary, the process for identifying a home for the intermediary and how to approach its initial fundraising and activities.

The practice of connecting data across sectors speaks to a tool from The Intersector Project Toolkit, Commit to Information Sharing. Partner organizations likely possess differing types of data related to the issue the collaboration aims to address. Sharing data relevant to multiple sectors’ work gives collaboration partners a more comprehensive understanding of an issue and builds trust among partners and in the collaborative process.

While some partners may come to the collaboration willing to share data, the collaboration will likely need to actively encourage partners to share information. Collaborations may choose to clearly communicate how information will further or enable the aims of the collaboration, develop information sharing protocols, establish confidentiality agreements and more. Also, partners will be more likely to share information if the collaboration can instill confidence that the data will be managed safely and securely. The collaboration may choose to entrust this task to partner who has a proven track record of successfully managing proprietary information, to a neutral third party, to a collaboration funder or consider other possible management structures.

For example, a nonprofit working to improve the academic outcomes of foster children, FosterEd, sought to address the challenges that foster children face by enhancing coordination among the individuals and agencies that serve them. FosterEd worked with Sundaram LLC to develop an educational case management system that stakeholders use to track the educational strengths and needs of individual foster children, enhancing understanding among the professionals working with the children and reducing duplication of services.

Sharing data among partners also enables tracking student demographics and educational attainment, which helps organizations allocate staff resources and train staff appropriately. Critically, the Web interface of the case management system brought these agencies and institutions into greater communication with each other and ensured collective ownership of students’ educational plans. To read more about this cross-sector collaboration, see the full case study in The Intersector Case Library, Improving Educational Outcomes for Foster Children in Marion County.

We recommend that partners working to share data consider the following questions:

  • What are the different types of data that we might consider sharing with one another?
  • How will we determine what data each partner possesses and could potentially share with the collaboration? How will we encourage partners to share that data?
  • How will we ensure that the data we share is securely stored and managed? Will we consider confidentiality agreements among partners? Will we identify a partner or third party to manage the data?
  • What other measures will we take?
  • What will happen to shared data at the end of our collaboration (assuming our collaboration is not ongoing)? 

We also recommend the following resources for additional guidance on information sharing, governances, agreements, storage and more. 

Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

This comprehensive resource provides detailed guidance, including explanatory text and several tools and templates, related to many aspects of information sharing including risks, governance, agreements, storage and more. The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing works to inspire and improve data sharing across the public sector in the United Kingdom.

“Data Governance Checklist” from the U.S Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center

While this resource is not designed for cross-sector collaborations in particular, it provides a comprehensive checklist to assist organizations with establishing and maintaining data governance programs and provides considerations that may be helpful for collaborations, such as assigning decision-making authority over data, conducting data inventories, generating policies and procedures and more.


Author: The Intersector Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cross-sector collaboration as a way to address society’s pressing issues. We work to provide practitioners in every sector with the tools they need to implement collaborative solutions to complex problems.

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