Data: What Can It Mean for Your Agency?

September 28, 2023, Feature, by Russ Carson, Ph.D.

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How data can help you tell your agency’s story

Data is a four-letter word that’s getting lots of attention lately. Its role is increasingly critical to the operations and obligations of park and recreation agencies. Data is a powerful tool for the management, planning and decision-making processes related to parks, recreational facilities and programming. Insights can inform strategies, policies and improvements aimed at furthering quality experiences and impacts on the overall health and vitality of park and recreation agencies and the communities they serve. The accelerated interest in data has led professionals to seek assistance — or at least educational guidance — on “anything data” as it relates to parks and recreation. Let’s start with the basics.

Why is data so important? In simplest terms, data helps us to understand, discover and make things better. It’s like a collection of clues that are put together to create a clearer picture of the question or topic at hand. The learnings, patterns, trends and relationships that emerge can be used to solve problems, inform decisions and determine impact.

What is quantitative data vs. qualitative data? Data is largely considered quantitative in nature, meaning that if it can be counted or converted into a number, it is quantitative data. Data also comes in qualitative forms, such as text, images, audio, video and other non-numeric qualities that often provide rich context, perspective and sometimes a voice to the lived experience. The most ideal approach, and most difficult to implement, is to measure both quantitative and qualitative data to truly understand what is happening. The combination of both helps describe the “real-world” experience behind the numbers.

Where should we start with data? There is no shortage of data in the park and recreation field. In fact, so much available data exists that many professionals find themselves overwhelmed and even apprehensive about where to start. The best place to start is with a focus. Ask the question, “What am I trying to accomplish with data?” Is there a question requiring an answer, a problem that needs to be solved, or even a decision that must be made where data can help? Having a data focus gives agencies the direction necessary to find success with building meaningful insights and, eventually, data stories.

What counts as data? Anything that can be measured!

Quantitative examples:

  • Number of visitors by recreation center and park
  • Usage hours
  • New or preferred program requests
  • Online survey responses
  • Website analytics (e.g., number of views and downloads, click rates)
  • Operating expenditure per capita
  • Percentage of revenue to operating expenditures
  • Annual budget by category
  • Condition of park infrastructure or equipment
  • Instructor-to-attendee ratio
  • Number of staff
  • Acreage of parkland
  • Demographic characteristics of residents
  • Percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk to a park

Qualitative examples:

  • Parents’ feedback submitted online, in person or by phone
  • Comments shared at a community engagement gathering
  • Public sentiments on social media
  • Emotional images or videos of users in the park
  • Quotes about residents’ experiences or interests
  • Reflections from community members

Creating Meaning With Data

A key point to remember at the outset is data by itself does not carry specific meaning. When data is collected, organized, analyzed and interpreted in relation to the question being answered, that information conveys logical meaning. In other words, having mounds of data available, or even gathered, does not automatically turn into anything important or usable. It needs to be examined and represented in a manner capable of producing meaningful insights and actions. There are three guiding steps for translating such information into meaningful insights and data stories.

Let’s use a real-life example to show how an agency can progress through these steps. An agency is interested in improving its service delivery for residents with disabilities. The data focus is identifying gaps in facilities and programs for individuals with disabilities across the lifespan.

Step One:

Collect and organize data. Data for this example can be gathered in one or two ways: (1) from existing sources, such as databases (U.S. Census), to determine the number of individuals with disabilities in the county or using the agency’s existing recording system to identify the number of programs and participation rates that draw individuals with disabilities; and (2) agency-performed methods, such as surveys, focus groups or community engagement events, to discover the preferred services for residents with disabilities. For both, it is important to use trustworthy sources and correctly performed methods so the data collected is of quality. Remember, agencies may not need to collect any new data; there are unlimited existing sources (e.g., NRPA, the CDC, Trust for Public Land) and software programs (recreation management software) now available to park and recreation professionals.

Collected data should be grouped into categories or arranged in a table to make it easier to analyze. Continuing with the example, collected data would be organized into two spreadsheets: one listing the quantities, attendee totals, age groups reached and resident preferences by program type, as well as a comparable spreadsheet by facility type. Tables like these can be generated from computer programs and may need further adjustments to include qualitative data collected.

Step Two:

Analyze and interpret data. Most data on its own does not carry any significance or purpose. Data needs to be analyzed to draw out patterns, relationships and trends. Building on the example, spreadsheet data are calculated to determine the popular programs and facilities by age groups and disability types. These results are then compared to the most common service preferences identified by residents. Gaps that emerge inform future needs or improvements.

Step Three:

Translate data into action and stories. Understanding what data tells us does not always lead to clear actions or a strong justification for these actions. Often, analyzed and interpreted data require translation into meaningful insights and stories that inspire actions. For example, connecting the gaps in facilities and programming needs for individuals with disabilities across the lifespan to state averages, peer agencies statistics, industry trends, research findings and even evidence-based best practices can drive a compelling case for improvements with key stakeholders. Better yet, when these comparisons are brought to life with convincing qualitative data narratives or visualized insights from residents with disabilities, stakeholders’ interests and actions that follow are nearly undeniable.

Utilizing Data and Data Stories

There are many uses for data, and more preferably, data stories. For the past two years, PlayCore has worked to unravel the most consistent data uses among park and recreation professionals. The top five uses include:

Budgeting – Data helps guide decisions on resource allocation and infrastructure development. For instance, data can be used to schedule park maintenance activities, schedule asset replacements, develop a capital investment plan, develop a system-wide funding plan, address recreation and facility service needs, and allocate for staff. Many agencies today center equity in all aspects of decision making to ensure budgets are allocated equitably. Examples include comparing spending, staffing, operating budgets and park conditions to varying neighborhood demographics and conditions to understand disparities in investments across an agency’s park and recreation system.

Planning – Data-driven insights aid in the long-term master planning process of parks and recreational areas while also informing the roadmap and implementation strategies for the development of and improvement to these areas. Master plans require extensive community engagement, assessment of park and recreation needs, and benchmarking analysis of peer or aspirational agencies. Information on community demographics, resident priorities and new trends in the field can influence the strategic priorities and outcomes of a park and recreation master plan.

Funding – Most funding or grant applications require a description of the current challenges or pressing needs in the community. Some even request to identify how the community will benefit from the project or what evaluation methods will be utilized for measuring impact. For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) requests applicants describe the need for recreational improvements, the opportunities afforded to targeted populations and the participation of public input. Data that demonstrates the potential impact and value of the project strengthens the case for financial support.

Communication – Data is an essential tool for communicating and engaging with the community. Data can showcase the positive impacts on healthier lifestyles, advocate for new initiatives, and justify funding decisions and investments. By sharing relevant data-driven information — packaged up with data visuals — park and recreation agencies can build trust and a sense of ownership among residents.

Recognition – Data provides a basis for evaluating the success and effectiveness of various initiatives, projects and programs. Evaluation results enable professionals to track progress toward goals and adjust as needed. Agency-wide evaluations and assessments are integral to national recognition programs, such as CAPRA Accreditation (Standard #10) and the National Gold Medal Award.

Who in my agency is responsible for this work? Answering this question can be a challenge for park and recreation agencies. Most agencies have limited time and resources (e.g., people, technology, expertise) dedicated to data and are filling the void with consultants or third-party data services. Some are hiring individuals with some data focus, while others are training-up individuals on staff with data interests.

Tips to Learn More

The good news is there are many resources out there to support park and recreation professionals and agencies with their data journey. NRPA’s website has myriad data resources, such as benchmarking tools (e.g., Park Metrics or Park Pulse surveys), research reports (like the Agency Performance Review), an Evaluation Resource Hub and grant writing guidance for an LWCF application.

For those attending the 2023 NRPA Annual Conference, join us at the education session, titled “Does our Work Matter?: Using Data to Measure Impact,” on Wednesday, October 11, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. CDT. This session will be presented by a panel of professionals from Georgia, Kansas and Michigan who will share how they use data to document the impact of their work.

Russ Carson, Ph.D., is Director of Research and Community Impact at PlayCore.