Key takeways

  • UCLA’s Agile Visual Analytics Lab reimagines how vital information is presented to decision-makers. 
  • Seeing research narratives too often going unread, the lab’s founders sought to put research findings into a form that could be better understood and used by laypeople.
  • The new grant from the Children’s Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will fund work with child welfare agencies to advance data use.

That’s the mission of a team of data experts at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs known as the UCLA Agile Visual Analytics Lab, or AVAL. For almost a decade, the faculty, staff and student innovators at AVAL have been reimagining how vital information is put into the hands of people whose decisions impact the lives of others.

AVAL’s efforts have been funded by over $24 million in contracts and grants, and last month, the AVAL team was awarded $9.4 million from the Children’s Bureau, an office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to establish, by cooperative agreement, a Quality Improvement Center on Workforce Analytics. The effort, led by AVAL and in partnership with three other universities and several private consultants, will work with at least six public or tribal child welfare agencies to advance their use of data in addressing child welfare workforce needs.

Major projects of this type are welcomed, but getting big grants wasn’t what professor of social welfare Todd Franke and research director Robert Blagg initially aimed to achieve when they co-founded AVAL in 2014. Like many scholars, Franke and Blagg became frustrated after pouring great effort and resources into research and evaluation projects, writing lengthy reports of the findings, and then seeing that the findings were not well used.

“The context in which programs, policies and practices are implemented is constantly changing, and often lengthy written reports get filed away after someone skims through the executive summary,” Franke said.

Narrative reports don’t allow diverse stakeholders to easily explore findings from unique perspectives. “AVAL was created to ensure stakeholders have the vital information they need — and ultimately use — to make more timely and sound decisions,” Franke said.

Data vizualiztion
Agile Visual Analytics Lab
An example of a data visualization developed for a previous child welfare workforce project. Click here to see an interactive version.

The AVAL team strives to help academic and community partners engage with data in meaningful ways, streamlining the data collection process and creating interactive visualizations of the results.

Blagg said current and previous projects have benefited public agencies at the local, state and federal levels, in sectors such as human services, health and education, and have supported the work of other research and evaluation partners.

“We assist people to realize the benefits and efficiencies of filling the gap between the gathering of data and using that information to initiate transformative action,” Blagg said.

Since its founding, the AVAL team has worked with over 25 child welfare agencies to build their capacities to use data in their approaches to workforce development.

As part of their work with the Children’s Bureau’s previous Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development, the AVAL team partnered with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families to develop an interactive dashboard describing characteristics of their workforce and key indicators such as staff turnover and retention.

“When [our HR department] saw the dashboard for the first time, it just blew us away. We could visualize the data across a spectrum of ways ... It significantly surpassed our expectations,” said Richard Gobble, the department's human resources planning and strategy manager.

Marcos Rodriguez, the department's director of human resources, said, “Now we have a tool we can actually rely on and trust. [Our staff] can in real-time look at the data and make informed decisions.”

The new federal funding will further support efforts to build upon the innovations developed by AVAL and other partners through their work with the Children’s Bureau. It will provide funding across five years for work to be completed in cooperation with researchers at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; the University of Washington; the University of Pittsburgh, and several nationally recognized private consultants. Franke will be the principal investigator, with Blagg as the co-PI.

Data visualization
Agile Visual Analytics Lab
A data visualization example relating to a previous child welfare workforce project. Click here to see an interactive version.

The overall goal of the new center is to develop evidence around how to address child welfare workforce needs by partnering with agencies to implement and evaluate a process to advance agency use of workforce analytics. The project will:

  • Create data-driven workforce processes and interventions.
  • Improve workforce recruitment, performance, retention and well-being.
  • Improve diversity, equity and inclusion among child welfare leaders and staff.

“While child welfare agencies collect vast amounts of data about their workforces, they often struggle to unlock insights from their workforce data that they can trust and use to make decisions,” Blagg said.

Challenges related to trusting and using this data can be wide-ranging between agencies. During and since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, all child welfare agencies faced immense pressure to respond rapidly to the evolving needs of their workforces. Unfortunately, many child welfare agencies weren’t well-positioned to use their data in making those decisions.

“As a result, some child welfare agencies have come to appreciate they need help,” Blagg said. “Understanding how the new center's approaches and data visualizations are used — and their impact — will help to drive the national conversation on building the capacities of child welfare agencies to use their data more effectively and efficiently.”

As they like to say at AVAL — it’s all about connecting people to data.