October 12, 2010
New platform could spark Jewish data revolution
Brandeis University’s ambitious JDATA project has the power to transform the process of understanding and funding Jewish education. Or it could be an expensive bust.
Funded with $1.5 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation and developed over the past two years, JDATA essentially is a website that allows Jewish educational organizations—in this case day schools, part-time schools, camps, preschools and college campus organizations—to submit organizational information, from financials to school censuses. The idea is to create a comprehensive database about the field.
Brandeis is describing it as a gift to the field of Jewish education from Jim Joseph.
The key question: Will the field accept the gift and become active participants?
The platform, which was showcased last week at a learning session at the Brandeis House in New York, allows participating schools, researchers and other users to sort the information by a number of factors—geography, size of school, types of students and size of budget. It has been tested in 16 communities over the past year or so.
Supporters say the project has the potential to be transformational and ultimately could save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in social research.
If it works out as planned, the Jewish community will have more than an up-to-date census of the Jewish educational system. Assuming schools provide financial information, the community finally will be able to put a price tag on Jewish education—something that could prove valuable in pitches to philanthropists and making informed communal funding decisions.
“In any other area of social public life, you have a department of education or department of health, or institutions that collect the basic information on what is going on in the sector,” said Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center at Brandeis and the Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at the suburban Boston university. “In our rainbow world of Jewish education, where everybody is a boat that floats or doesn’t on its own bottom, we don’t have the infrastructure to collect even the most basic, simple information about what goes on.”
Much of Saxe’s job is conducting studies about the Jewish community; he says the new platform will make a big difference.
“So much time and effort goes into collecting the basic numbers and into figuring out what is the basic information,” Saxe said. “We think it will increase the efficiency of work and the likelihood we can come to conclusions that have applicability.”
But there are pitfalls—namely, ensuring that the field is, in fact, participating in providing information, and then ensuring the veracity of the data. Simply, if the data isn’t complete or accurate, then the project is worthless.
Brandeis isn’t blind to the issue.
Amy Sales, the associate director of the Cohen Center who is overseeing JDATA, says it is a significant concern. That’s why funders need to press their grantees to participate in the program, she said.
“This is absolutely critical and part of the new thinking as we go back now to places who are already using it,” Sales said.
For example, she said, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has been a driving force behind the effort and presses camps to participate. The camps have been trained in a culture of providing data because the FJC requires it, according to Sales. The trick, she said, will be changing the culture in other sectors.
Sales added that the FJC and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an umbrella organization for Jewish day schools, are contemplating imposing sanctions on institutions that fail to comply. In San Francisco, she said, preliminary talks are under way with major funders about joining together to create a policy under which foundations would not give funds to schools that do not participate.
The JDATA team also is working on the accuracy component for the project, but for now it will rely on the honesty of organizations and a hands-on approach.
In the short term, Sales said, “We double-check all of the data. We run the data and look for improbable values. If a school that has 100 children but then claims it has 500 in fifth grade, something is wrong. We get on the phone and we call them.”
This article was adapted from JTA’s philanthropy blog, Fundermentalist.com.