Adding the why to the what: Supporting analysts to use qualitative data

Published: 19 April 2023

A closeup of a hand writing notes onto a board
Photo by Kvalifik on Unsplash
Two case studies from the Changing Futures programme. 

Thanks to Lucy Woods (Senior Involvement Manager, Revolving Doors), Nica Cornell (Project Officer Changing Futures, Plymouth City Council) and Emma Stevens (Project Officer Changing Futures, Plymouth City Council) for their contributions to this blog.

As part of our support for Changing Futures – a £64m, three-year programme to establish new ways of helping people facing multiple disadvantages, such as mental ill health, domestic abuse, or substance misuse – Social Finance has been working with the 15 programme areas on their use of data. Across four blog posts we will outline various strands of this work, from what we’ve learned about the needs and experiences of data analysts, through to the use of data sharing agreements, how we’ve supported one area to link their operational and outcomes data, and how we’ve brought an awareness of qualitative research into the toolbox of data analysts.

We hope to show the multifaceted work involved with bringing about services that can understand and make better use of data. This is not simply about analytics and dashboards, but about the ability to understand and ask what is useful?’ and get buy-in to the collation and effective use of data that puts people experiencing multiple disadvantages at its heart. 

Other posts in this series:

In this post, we’ll describe how we worked with Essex County Council and Plymouth City Council to strengthen their programme toolkit using qualitative research methods. We’ve learned through discussion with data analysts at communities of practice that there can sometimes be a disconnect between the data and what it tells us. While analysts typically have exposure to the data that tells them what is happening, they’re less likely to be able to answer the pressing question from colleagues: why

Data leads and analysts often find themselves doing activities outside what would be seen as typical’ analysis work, and while this comes with some tensions, it also brings the opportunity to support them with an additional technique to understand qualitative data. This is the approach we took to working with Essex.

Similarly, qualitative methods offer us opportunities to drive understanding and empathy between services and colleagues. Through using discovery approaches most often identified with digital ways of working, we were able to support Plymouth to understand and uncover some possible answers to a problem that at first looked like it could be solved with a digital solution. We were also able to build understanding of lived experience among a wider group of colleagues, amplifying the experiences of those accessing services for multiple disadvantage.

The two short case studies below briefly describe how we approached this work. 

Essex: Using affinity mapping and thematic analysis to generate insights

The Changing Futures Essex team used a survey to gather the perceptions, experiences and needs of those experiencing multiple disadvantage locally. The survey’s 10 free text questions enabled participants to express their experiences and feelings in a meaningful, nuanced way, and the team were able to gather a large amount of rich information. But it can be difficult to translate this kind of qualitative information into actionable insights to improve services.

The team had begun to quantify some of the information they’d collected, and were using Excel to manage this. While this helped to demonstrate the frequency of a particular response, it wasn’t a suitable method for helping the team to understand the needs, feelings, and motivations of those experiencing multiple disadvantage.

After reviewing the data, we discerned that thematic analysis and affinity mapping might lead to further insights. This is a flexible method which is easy to pick up and can be used across a variety of scenarios. It also lends itself well to collaboration and involving people in the work.

Thematic analysis is the process of identifying patterns or themes within qualitative data. Braun & Clarke, in Using thematic analysis in psychology (2006), suggest that it is the first qualitative method that should be learned, as ‘…it provides core skills that will be useful for conducting many other kinds of analysis.’

We brought the team together in a workshop which incorporated training on why we move from raw qualitative data to actionable insights and how we might do this. Questions we answered included: what are the fundamental differences between analysis and synthesis? and, what are the different approaches we can use to do these two steps?

The first step was to analyse the data by breaking it down into manageable chunks, taking what Essex had already brought together in Excel. We then moved this into an online whiteboard workspace, Miro, to enable more flexible engagement with the content. Using Miro, we were able to use affinity mapping to bring together insights in thematic groups regardless of what question they referred to from the survey. This enabled Essex to make connections across questions and draw out wider insights.

Miro board with insights grouped thematically

Using this approach enabled Essex to draw out themes that they could use to tell stories and draw together narratives. It also helped to support people working with data to begin to understand a way to engage with qualitative data and to make use of this to support insights from data analysis.

Plymouth: Discovery research to enable relational data sharing

A significant problem in the current system is the re-traumatising effect of people experiencing multiple disadvantage having to repeat themselves to services while seeking support. To address this problem, the Changing Futures team in Plymouth undertook research to identify potential solutions that would allow users to share data about their experiences in a non-traumatising and more relational way, while also enabling services to collect the data needed to provide the right services.

The initial scope of the research focused on possible digital solutions to this problem, including how smartphones or apps might help. Through some one-to-one support we worked with Plymouth to explore the problem statement, and realised the key was to broaden the scope of the research beyond the digital lens to make sure the right underlying problem was explored and addressed. 

To improve the understanding of the problem, and ideate solutions that would be aligned with user needs, we ran a co-production session with Revolving Doors. The session had attendees from lived and learned experience backgrounds so that both points of view were accounted for. We used the appreciative Inquiry model, during which participants first reflected on the current situation in Plymouth, before ideating what the dream scenario would be. Finally, we reflected on the impact and feasibility of each potential solution, to identify which ones to test out.

The appreciative inquiry model

The workshop structure was particularly useful to surface some of the underlying problems faced by services and people experiencing multiple disadvantage, and to think of possible ways to solve that problem. While one of the potential solutions involved the use of technology, we uncovered that some of the underlying problems were related to organisational process, which may be met with non-technical solutions. 

Through working with our lived experience experts, and by using human centred discovery methods typically associated with digital ways of working, we supported Plymouth to understand to what extent digital or technology approaches might address the issue, and helped them consider multiple approaches to this problem. 

In a complex space, it’s important for digital specialists to form part of a wider team in order to uncover the most suitable solutions and place the needs of those who access services at the heart.

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If you’re interested in finding out more about the data and digital work on Changing Futures, we would love to hear from you.

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