As it turns 30, DataSpark, located at the University of Rhode Island Libraries, is about to undertake a major, multi-state effort to determine whether Rhode Island and its neighboring states are, in fact, experiencing a “brain drain.” DataSpark operates and maintains Rhode Island’s statewide longitudinal data system (SLDS), also known as the RI DataHUB, linking individual level data from early childhood through time in the workforce.
In collaboration with New Jersey and Virginia, DataSpark will be leading the effort to create a multi-state postsecondary report for New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Funded by the Coleridge Initiative’s Democratizing Our Data Challenge, the effort will securely link education and employment records cross-state and explore to what extent postsecondary graduates work out-of-state following graduation.
According to DataSpark Director Dana Brandt, “This will be the first time we are really sharing and analyzing data across state lines in this way to understand ‘brain drain’ and whether or not our students and professionals who are trained in Rhode Island, then actually work and stay here, or if they are leaving Rhode Island and being pulled into other states.”
“Especially for those who would hope to attract outside companies into our state and want to tout that we have a well-trained, well-educated workforce this is an extremely important study,” said Dean of University Libraries Karim Boughida. “For policymakers, economic development officials and business leaders having access to accurate data that can be collected, analyzed and used in decision-making is invaluable.”
DataSpark was founded in 1992 as part of the non-profit Providence Plan to connect data and people, with the goal to inform, empower and inspire innovative decision-making. For 30 years it has assisted policymakers in state and local governments, community leaders in nonprofits, and academic researchers across the country. In 2017, it became part of the University of Rhode Island and is now housed at the Robert L. Carothers Library & Learning Commons. The move to URI was a natural fit as university researchers had long been collaborating with DataSpark and the two entities shared overlapping expertise as well as a common mission of moving the state forward.
“We believed from the start that this would be a great collaboration,” said Boughida. “Our libraries were already in the business of providing and curating data in a variety of forms, working with students, faculty and researchers to solve complex problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. By bringing in a skilled team with additional data analysts and engineers, we’ve been able to work together to serve the best interests of Rhode Islanders.”
DataSpark has an extensive amount of individual-level education, health and labor and workforce data (more than 50 datasets) from 11 sources over the last 30 years. Yet many people are still unaware of this incredible resource which serves to assist state level agencies, legislators and others in developing sound, evidence-based policies and in assessing the success of programs.
For example, it is well known that elevated blood lead levels can impact a child’s brain development leading to learning and behavior problems, as well as a host of other physical issues. But how will lead exposure affect an individual child’s development and, collectively, how does that impact a school district? Thanks to a partnership between DataSpark and the Rhode Island Department of Health, health and education administrators and policymakers are able to conduct a linked analysis to assess the educational impacts of lead exposure on Rhode Island children from each city and town – from chronic absenteeism to students being “held back,” to test proficiency and individual education plans – and track them through adulthood.
DataSpark’s comprehensive, interactive report on the Educational Impacts of Lead Exposure enables policymakers at both the state and local level to use this data to implement more targeted, comprehensive efforts to screen children early; identify at-risk neighborhoods and housing stock; undertake abatement efforts, outreach and education; and help to secure needed funding for these programs.
One of the cornerstones of DataSpark’s work is that data should inform policymaking. Among the group’s services are data analysis, data visualization, web application development, Geographic Information System mapping, data systems development and report development.
“DataSpark aims to connect people to and through data. Having access to accurate, comprehensive, and reliable data is one of the hallmarks of good policymaking,” said Brandt. “Without it we are flying blind, but with good data the possibilities are immense.”
Yet, while these resources are available to help state and local governments make wise use of tax dollars by developing targeted and cost-effective interventions, DataSpark itself has been in self-funding mode since its inception. For 30 years DataSpark has been seeking grants through nonprofit foundations and federal agencies such as the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, while 17 other states across the nation have codified their SLDSs in statute with a dedicated funding stream.
In addition to operating the Rhode Island SLDS, DataSpark also maintains the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner (RIOPC) data warehouse, integrating and linking data from Rhode Island’s three public institutions of higher learning. DataSpark has also supported the state’s response to COVID-19, loaning staff to the state response because of the team’s familiarity and experience in working with state data.
“We have been doing great work with, and on behalf of, our many state agency partners and others,” said Boughida. “Importantly, DataSpark operates a secure system using the most modern tools, including artificial intelligence. We use a machine learning algorithm, built by DataSpark engineers, all in house, to integrate, link and manage data. DataSpark is, in fact, ahead of many other systems nationwide.”
Among the many resources offered to policymakers and stakeholders through DataSpark is the Rhode Island Talent Dashboard, an interactive site that demonstrates links between K-12, postsecondary education, and the workforce. The site enables the tracking of student performance over time, assisting agencies in evaluating program performance, answering questions across systems; and better communicating outcomes related to education and workforce programs. This includes data such as grade level proficiency, percentage of students graduating high school in four years, percentage graduating college ready and median income post-graduation, which can be filtered by sex, race, school district, level of education and more.
Just this spring, Rhode Island’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services commissioned DataSpark to analyze and share results on Rhode Island’s healthcare graduates and their employment outcomes at the Healthcare Workforce Summit. This Summit convened education and healthcare providers and policymakers in a data-driven, collaborative, facilitated process to identify short-term and longer-term solutions to Rhode Island’s healthcare workforce challenges. Using the RI SLDS, DataSpark found that more than three-quarters of Rhode Island’s healthcare graduates who entered the healthcare workforce remained employed in that workforce one year later. Retention is particularly high for individuals training in high-demand fields like nursing and social work.
Also available is a longitudinal analysis exploring “Credentials of Value” conducted in collaboration with the Rhode Island Governor’s Office, the Governor’s Workforce Board, and contributing agency partners: the Rhode Island Departments of Education and Labor and Training, as well as RIOPC, with technical assistance from the National Skills Coalition; that assesses workforce outcomes for those who have no postsecondary degree, but possess another non-degree credential. The analysis includes median wages for dozens of credentials and certifications and can be looked at through various equity lenses (e.g., race, gender, socio-economic status) to assess whether certain credentials may be more valuable than others.
Last fall the RIOPC Advisory Committee and the Rhode Island Foundation issued reports recommending further investment and development of Rhode Island’s SLDS. While federal pass-through funding in partnership with various Rhode Island state agencies has made its way to DataSpark, the majority of funds are project specific. Additional funding is needed to support the long-term sustainability of Rhode Island’s SLDS.
“DataSpark offers a tremendous value for the state, in providing data to make educated decisions and develop effective policy – and in assessing the effectiveness of our state programs and investments,” said Brandt. “When we make ourselves smarter on the issues that affect people’s lives, we can do better for our state and its citizens.”
For more information on DataSpark, or to explore its various reports and dashboards, visit: datasparkri.org.
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