How Data Analysis in Used to Improve How Social Work Gets done in North Carolina

Written by Jack Levinson

helping community

Across the field of social work, it’s a standard expectation that professionals have a deep knowledge of the issues faced by our nation’s most vulnerable communities. But how do social workers come into that knowledge?

In order to get the lay of the land of our country’s most profound social crises, social workers increasingly turn to data.

Unlike purely historical or analytical research, data gives social workers the hard facts alone, allowing them to see how individuals and families are impacted by particular issues. Data can reveal patterns of inequality and long-term phenomena affecting specific communities, such as an inability to find work, struggles with literacy, rates of chronic disease, and more. This has made it an invaluable part of the social work practice, informing on-the-ground procedural strategy as well as broader policy goals.

If you are a math and science-oriented individual who wishes to get involved in social action, you may find that you are able to pair your aptitude in data science with a thriving social work career. Read on to learn about the many ways data science is informing the discipline of social work, emerging trends in data analysis, and how social workers will continue to rely upon data in the future.

The Growing Connection Between Data Science and Social Work

Social work deals with broad issues that impact communities in myriad ways. From poverty-related issues to mental health crises to problems related to children’s safety and well-being, there are many different profound causes the social work field aims to address. However, these matters can be extremely difficult to measure. Every individual and family experiences their own problems in their own way, and even the most committed, seasoned social worker cannot rely exclusively on their own experience as an eyewitness to understand the depth and extent of the issues their work addresses.

This is where data comes in. Approaches to the social work field are governed by evidence-based practices, which ground short-term strategies and long-term goals in substantive findings that can be measured over time. One need only think about the funding for public programs to understand why this is considered necessary; after all, in order for tax dollars to be put toward these services, it must be proven that they are not only effective but necessary. Data can go a long way in providing the evidence social workers need to deem their services worthy of public investment.

Data allows a rare bird’s eye view over immense social problems, revealing key findings that inform how social workers understand major issues – and how their work can help meaningfully address them.

This can include:

Data-based research can also help reveal how some issues are interconnected. By comparing, for example, rates of high school graduation with rates of employment, social workers may be able to see two aspects of a shared phenomenon. This shows how data science does not merely offer a new depth of data on an issue-by-issue basis, but rather helps illuminate the interdependence of key social justice issues.

This collaborative approach between data science and social work exemplifies how technology can be a force for positive change, empowering social workers to create more impactful and sustainable solutions for their clients and communities.

Ethical Considerations in Social Work Data Analysis

With so many game-changing tools suddenly at social workers’ disposal, it should come as no surprise that new ethical questions have emerged to ensure that important concerns about privacy and fair use continue to be respected. In many cases, social workers themselves bear the burden of thinking through these issues and developing approaches that are fair, lawful, and considerate of others’ needs.

As the use of technology expands, social workers are grappling with the responsibility of ensuring that data is collected, stored, and analyzed ethically and with respect for individuals’ privacy rights. This trend emphasizes the importance of establishing robust ethical guidelines and frameworks to govern the use of data in social work practice. This is an important arena that contemporary social workers are focused on now to inform guidelines for the future.

Still, social workers can expect that just as this technology continues to evolve, so too will the guidelines around ethical data use in the social work practice. Fortunately, many of these concerns – such as the extensive increase in data-capturing in all sorts of arenas, from financial transactions to health status updates and more – impact fields outside of social work as well, meaning social workers engaged with these issues can look to the broader conversation for ideas and examples of the protective measures being used to enhance data findings without violating others’ rights.

Trends in Social Work Data Analysis

The use of data science in social work is not a fringe topic, but rather one that most social workers (in particular those who have recently completed Master of Social Work degree programs) are actively invested in. This means that there are many hot topics in the social work field related to this subject.

Predictive Analytics and Social Work

Beyond providing information about historic social trends and the current state of the country, data science now has the power to go one step further. The rise of predictive analytics has meant that social workers have greater means to foresee the impact of their services and how particular social problems may evolve across various communities. This, in turn, informs approaches to strategy, as it helps social workers anticipate potential issues and tailor their services to more directly meet the needs of their target populations. This shift from a reactive to a proactive stance enables social workers to allocate resources more efficiently, optimize service delivery, and ultimately enhance the overall impact of their interventions.

The newfound rise of predictive analytics is illuminating for social workers – and is therefore good for the country at large.

Indeed, data scientists who put their skills toward social studies are often thrilled to have the opportunity to do such meaningful work, using tools frequently associated with business-building to help the disadvantaged. If you are a data scientist who does not wish for a full career pivot but nevertheless wants to be involved in civic change, this is an excellent way to make use of your extensive training and skill.

Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and Machine Learning (M.L.)

Until recently, it fell to exceptionally talented data scientists to consolidate and interpret vast amounts of data to inform larger conclusions. As data-collection tools have proliferated, it has meant that more data is captured than ever – so much, in fact, that it would be all but impossible for a human to process, at least not with the speed to make those findings useful.

Fortunately, A.I. and M.L. have revolutionized the field of data science to make use of these incredible advances in data-capturing. These algorithms can analyze vast datasets to identify patterns, predict outcomes, and inform decision-making. Particularly in the case of real-time data, which often arrives in immense quantities not approachable by humans, this is an incredible boon, finding meaningful insights in what might other seem like a chaotic and unapproachable amount of information.

The Democratization of Data

It’s no secret that data science is a highly skilled field, one that is frequently unintelligible to those who don’t have the extensive training of a master’s degree program. However, findings of data science can be highly valuable even to those who are not working in the data science arena. This is true in a huge variety of fields, and for the reasons explained above, social work is no different. Because of this, many in the field of data science are working to make their findings more accessible to the uninitiated.

One significant way this takes place is in Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs. Increasingly, social work students learn the skills to navigate and harness the power of data effectively, so that by the time they are working in the field they have deep insight into the impact and value of their work. There are also many training programs and other initiatives for social workers who are already in the field to build out these skills and expand their knowledge. While you may not have expected to work with data as part of your social work practice, get ready – in most subfields of the social work profession, this knowledge will prove to be critical to your approach.


Why is data science important in social work?

Data science has quickly risen to become an instrumental part of social work, providing illuminating insights into our country’s greatest social problems. It can be used to paint a vivid, entirely factual picture of complex social phenomena that had previously been difficult to assess and analyze. Data of all types is already being used by social workers to inform evidence-based practices that are intended to deeply and meaningfully help those in need, and thanks to emerging technologies such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, can even be used to accurately predict the status of social justice issues in the future.

Do I need to hold a data science degree to become a social worker?

Absolutely not. Many social work students will be given an overview of approaches to data science analysis and interpretation while they are completing their MSW programs so that they can follow the issues that are closest to them with the most information possible. However, a full-fledged degree in data science will not be necessary to reach this level of competency.

What social work organizations make use of data analytics?

A huge variety of social work organizations benefit from new data analysis tools. This can include public programs, which may determine how funding is allocated based on data findings, as well as non-profits, medical and school facilities, and more. Because data is so tremendously useful in providing detailed reports on social phenomena, there are few institutions that do not rely upon data-based findings to inform their practices.