Data Chats as an Organizing and Capacity-Building Process

Jake Cowan
Local Data for Equitable Communities
4 min readFeb 27, 2024


A publication of the Local Data for Equitable Communities Resource Hub.

Why are residents’ stories important for understanding quantitative data? How do we expand our measures of success beyond traditional deficit-focused indicators? How can residents’ perspectives on data drive community action?

In Milwaukee, Data You Can Use (DYCU), a member of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, developed Data Chats to answer these types of questions. Data Chats are small community conversations about data that engage residents and other stakeholders in sharing their perspectives and interpretations of data about communities. Data Chat participants identify strategies to address issues and challenges raised by the data and create priorities to effectively advocate for policy change and community resources. Other communities can benefit from lessons learned in Milwaukee about measuring Black youth achievement as well as how to engage residents with data more broadly to facilitate collaboration and inspire action.

Data Chats are a well-tested method. In 2020, with a grant from the Data for COVID-19 Response and Recovery program, DYCU convened Data Chats in 11 Milwaukee neighborhoods to explore data about factors that increase people’s risk of contracting COVID-19, such as high blood pressure and employment in the service industry. With the information from the Data Chats, residents developed priorities for short- and long-term COVID-19 responses and solutions, such as establishing COVID-19 testing sites in their neighborhoods. The experience also built capacity for residents to engage local government, funders, health systems, and others about these priorities.

Building on the success of the earlier grant, DYCU received a grant in 2022 from the Using Local Data to Address Structural Racism program to convene Data Chats with eight Milwaukee nonprofit organizations working with Black youth to review Black youth achievement data, note gaps in current data sources, and build a shared understanding of how to interpret the data. Each of the eight nonprofit partners convened a diverse set of youth stakeholders, including parents and previous participants of Milwaukee youth programs. DYCU presented Black youth achievement data at each Data Chat and facilitated conversations with participants to understand the drivers of trends and highlight the limitations of existing data. For example, DYCU shared that the number of Black students participating in career technical education programs in Milwaukee more than tripled between 2018 and 2021. Data Chat participants provided the context that their organizations have been promoting career technical education programs. Many young people who graduated from high school during the pandemic didn’t want to continue into postsecondary schools, and the trades presented them with an appealing option to start their careers.

During these Data Chats, participants also discussed narratives that harm Black youth. One participant shared, “The things we say about our ZIP codes need to stop. For example, saying a ZIP code is the ‘most incarcerated’ ZIP code — what does that do if you are a kid growing up in that ZIP code? How does that make you feel?” Participants also suggested different ways of measuring Black youth achievement. One person recounted how they felt shaken up after experiencing gun violence on the way to high school one morning but still made it to school. For the participant, this example illustrated how showing up even when you are scared and overwhelmed demonstrates leadership and should be celebrated.

These Data Chats helped organize a community of youth service providers, sparking new thinking about how they collect and use data and providing insights about how to understand Black youth achievement. Participants are reviewing the ideas for action discussed during the Data Chats, including engaging with local mental health organizations and advocacy groups to build a collaborative network supporting Black youth.

Organize Data Chats in Your Community

DYCU’s experience demonstrates that Data Chats are an effective way to engage communities in interpreting data and using it to develop an action agenda. This model anchors community action in residents’ perspectives and priorities and builds lasting data capacity in communities. DYCU used Data Chats to organize Milwaukee communities in response to the pandemic and work with youth-serving organizations to support Black youth. What issues and needs can your community explore using Data Chats?

Additional Resources