“There really isn’t another place that has this breadth of information,” said Robert Goerge, a senior research fellow for the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. “Nothing like this is happening, certainly not in Illinois and perhaps anywhere in the country.”
He was referring to the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s unified early childhood database, a system that would give early childhood service providers something like a real-time, three-dimensional map detailing the collective well-being and needs of Oak Park and River Forest’s children, age 5 and under.
Goerge was on hand for a meeting of the Collaboration’s governing board on May 6. The organization has an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the village of Oak Park, District 97 and District 200 “to develop an integrated system of high quality early childhood programs and services to benefit all children, birth to kindergarten age, living in Oak Park and River Forest,” according to a statement by the Collaboration.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, the IGA board lauded the Collaboration’s data-building efforts and expressed a willingness to see those efforts continue. That praise, however, was qualified by attempts on the part of some members to fully grasp the database’s present capabilities. For the 2015 fiscal year, the village of Oak Park, D97 and D200 are spending $338,100, $488,367 and $425,756, respectively, to support the Collaboration’s efforts.
“Over and over again for the last five years I’ve been coming to the Collaboration meetings, [and] I have just been inspired,” said D200 board President Jeff Weissglass. “This is clearly incredibly impressive work.”
Jackie Moore, the D200 board vice president, agreed the Collaboration’s progress has been “very exciting” but wondered whether or not the organization was prepared to deal with the consequences of its own success.
“If we had 100 percent screening, would we be ready to handle those next steps?” she asked. “Are there adequate services to fill the potential need?”
Amy Felton, the D97 board vice president, wanted to know what kinds of data points would “further the immediate and potential long-term interest of the [Collaboration’s] mission?”
Newly sworn in D97 board member Rupa Datta, who used to sit on the Collaboration’s evaluation committee, explained that, due to the complexity and non-linear nature of the task, many of the issues brought up by the IGA board are still being fleshed out. Goerge noted that progress on certain key indicators has been rather swift,.
In November 2013, the Collaboration entered into a five-year contract with Chapin Hall — a research and policy center “focused on a mission of improving the well-being of children and youth,” according to its website — to build the unprecedented database. Chapin is considered an international leader in acquiring data-sharing agreements.
That unique skill set is going to be critical going forward, said Carolyn Newberry Schwartz, the Collaboration’s executive director. She said the comprehensive database will analyze, and integrate, a multitude of disparate bodies of information — from data on school enrollment and poverty levels at the local level to subsidized child care and SNAP benefit data held at the state level.
The sheer amount, and highly sensitive nature, of the data presents huge challenges of its own. Much of the information requires that the Collaboration obtain special permission to access it. And when the data is finally acquired, it has to be made intelligible to the service providers who will rely on it for practical purposes, such as improving their programming outcomes.
“Once we’ve connected the data, we separate the names; they’re not with the data itself,” said Goerge. “We produce a fake ID number and that’s how we track the kids over time. Any identifying information is kept on a completely different server that is off the Internet. You have to be in the building, have a computer in the building, have a password on three different machines — it’s virtually impossible to get the names once we’ve linked them.”
Ultimately, the information Chapin receives will be transferred to a website where the data will be accessible only to the Collaboration’s staff members.
In the meantime, Goerge said that it’s been a challenge obtaining permission to access data that is controlled by the state. That challenge has been compounded by the recent gubernatorial transition. The upside, he noted, is that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration seems much more “data friendly.”
“In the last week, I’ve had meetings with the governor’s office and the new secretary of the Department of Human Services,” he said. “I’m extremely confident we’ll get that data, in part because [Gov. Rauner] would like us to do what we’re doing here for the rest of the state.”