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Transformational Data, From Children

alphieRecently I had the opportunity to sit with Andrew Ackerman, Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM). The conversation landed squarely on the information infrastructure in the social sector, particularly as it concerns knowledge networks. How do you build and maintain one that works for your organization? How does it actually work? We spoke on these questions and how listening to children and to their environment not only informs that network but provides key demographic cues to inform broad policy. Note: This article launches a new series for Markets For Good called Monday Morning Insights where we will examine various topics with an eye to starting off the week with interesting notes from the field, interviews, and guest blog posts.

Foundation In Data

Andy starts by noting that “everything the Museum does is rooted in research, learning, and informed experimentation,” all the way down to “Alphie, The Talking Dragon.(Top Left) Alphie was born of research conducted by Columbia Teachers College, Temple University, and Yale University that confirmed a number of insights about how children learn language. CMOM adds ”magic” to the research by meshing these findings with the things children love (repetition, fun, cause and effect) and then adding a team of designers, engineers, artists and technologists, to come up with Alphie: Feed him a letter tile and he reads it, then speaks a sentence featuring the letter, enhancing play with a powerful learning aid en route to reading and comprehension.

This kind of data gathering, analysis, and execution isn’t limited to applications within the museum. CMOM has worked with the National Institutes of Health to use real-time data from CMOM to develop a health curriculum for young children, incorporating the impact of sleep deprivation on childhood obesity. Normally, it would take years of research for the NIH to add such a component to its curriculum, but the compelling observations provided by the Museum prompted an unprecedented acceleration of the standard procedure. “This collaboration,” notes Andy, “came about through serendipitous networking in D.C. During a break from a presentation I made at a National Endowment for the Humanities, I mentioned our health program to a program officer at the NEH. He connected me to his wife at the NIH and the rest is history.”

With the cooperation of the NIH and a national advisory board of pediatric and health experts, researchers and community partners CMOM adapted the NIH’s We Can! ™ obesity prevention program for ages 8 to 13 into an 11-lesson curriculum for children ages 6 and younger and their adult caregivers .This new curriculum combines the latest science and research from the NIH with CMOM’s holistic arts and literacy based approach to learning and was tested with low income families in the Bronx, New Orleans and in Head Start Centers in New York City. According to Andy, “three-year evaluation findings on the curriculum have confirmed of our observational research – the type of research that is critical to help us understand how to formulate questions to enable program development and further research.”

Knowledge Network Development

CMOM’s work in health is just one example of outreach to multiple institutions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors in the Museum’s outreach efforts to create a knowledge platform that will not only inform its programming but also provide mutual exchange of information to improve the lives of children well beyond the doors of the Museum itself. The resulting network connects places of learning (New York City Public Housing, public libraries, schools, community centers) with cross-cutting vectors of service providers (Head Start centers, at-home care providers, parents and caregivers, nurse practitioners, and teachers).

The network is jointly maintained via a series of partnerships with the faith community, colleges and universities, social service agencies and government agencies, including The US Department of Education and the City of New York. This is one example of what an action-oriented knowledge network can look like: a pulsing entity fed by real-time data exchange, long-term analysis, and evaluation.

Impressive. But some might say, “We’re not a big organization. We don’t have the capacity (or means to build it) to attract necessary funding and collaboration on this level.” On this note, Andy responds, “We are a mid-sized organization (budget about $5 million), with a grass roots focus and a large-sized ability to focus our resources. We aren’t well endowed but we are entrepreneurial and constantly infuse our learning across projects, subjects, and audiences. We avoid starting from scratch and engage our staff in multiple projects simultaneously. Structurally, we are pretty flat so decision-making is quick and we can take advantage of new opportunities—and we say no to projects that would take us off course.”

So What?

If we take this knowledge network and view it in light of the visitor stream (almost 400,000 per year, with 50% adult visitors), then, Andy notes, “You have a few unique data advantages, including the ability to spot trends before they are trends.” In addition to informing curricula and programming, the traffic and interactions of the guests have proven to be a medium for spotting trends before they’re
trends. Demographic trends are often those most visible. CMOM noticed a growing trend of more fathers bringing children to the museum and similar growth in children visitors of mixed background – before either was widely represented in either the press or research.

The diversity of children, families, and caregivers provided by a major urban center allows insight into critical demographic shifts, especially since the Museum hosts a wide diversity of visitors. Another angle of impact is the role of Art, a perennial topic that is usually discussed in terms of lack of support for the arts. At CMOM, the data-informed approach for programming adds dimension to the familiar lobbying for art by demonstrating it as a natural and necessary method for discovering the emotional and affective underpinnings of cognitive progress in learning. At a recent event designed to engage families from Muslim communities in a future project about Muslim culture, the families were so deeply engaged in making mosaic tiles that the desired conversation was overtaken by the need to make art. Experiences such as these are indicators of serious needs that are often not on the radar screen. Indeed, in an economy desperate for innovation and creativity, we are estranged from making art.

Markets For Good

The take-away in the context of information infrastructure is to note the development of an active knowledge network. “The work we did to get to this point,” according to founder, Laurie Tisch, “is an accessible route for small organizations. The hard part, at the outset, is to stay focused and reflective of audience needs. In addition, CMOM cuts across many subject areas and intertwines education, health and culture. While this reflects how children learn and families thrive, it doesn’t necessarily line up with normative streams of funding.”

On keeping that network productive and the partnerships vibrant, Andy notes: “One critical element is the grease that gets the gears moving: philanthropists who are willing to provide ongoing support and venture into new areas. For CMOM, the support of the Laurie M Tisch Illumination Fund has enabled the museum to be reflective and proactive, a necessity that is too often seen as a luxury.”