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LEARN > Evidence Act Hub > Considering Data as Social Determinants: Expanding the Conversation at govDATAx

Considering Data as Social Determinants: Expanding the Conversation at govDATAx

While much of the conversation around social determinants is typically focused on health, those same determinants allow for understanding the interconnectedness of topics like economic well-being, the environment, public and community health, and other issues that are all bound in one system of social determination.

During the Data Foundation’s govDATAx in November 2023, experts engaged in a discussion about what social determinants means and their role, all amid a broader discussion with the data community about using data and evidence to strengthen public trust in our country’s institutions.

Three experts in the field, moderated by Data Foundation Board member Sherry Weir, participated in the discussion representing the Department of Health and Human Srvices, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and experience in the Department of Commerce.


What is a Social Determinant?

Social determinants of health are defined as the conditions in the environment where people play, live, and work that affect the quality of life and health characteristics, risks, or hazards. Those same factors apply to more than health, including outcomes related to economic well-being, educational attainment, criminal justice interventions, housing quality and placement, and democratic participation.

  • Amanda Cash described how her office – the Administration for Community Living (ACL) – addresses social determinants and how their approach has evolved over time. One example of their work that highlights this is their meal delivery network. During the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS allowed flexibility on how ACL’s grantees were implementing meal delivery processes, whether by working with food trucks, continuing to deliver traditional meals but using COVID-safe procedures, or supporting restaurants by using space or other innovative methods, all to ensure that even in the height of a pandemic that aging and disabled populations were still able to access needed food services.

  • Alicia Phillips Mandaville, from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, shared how MCC uses data to equip and empower other countries to address their social determinants. One method used is through direct cash transfers, which empowers the partner nation to direct funds as they see fit, using their lived experience alongside data, to inform decision making.

  • Natalie Evans Harris talked about how external federal partners can contribute to the practical use of social determinant data and insights, especially on sensitive and challenging topics. She added that it is time to move toward answering the question, “How do we drive action?” in regard to social determinants.


How Does Considering Data as a Social Determinant Affect Future Outcomes?

Data are essential for program and policy operations at the most fundamental level. In 2022, the White House Office of Management and Budget recognized a form of analysis, program evaluation, as a core function of government. President Biden early in the Administration announced that evidence would drive policy formulation.

Increasingly data are needed from one agency or program to inform decisions made by another. The implications of this are that we want to better use data to study what works, when, and where and then apply those insights for decision-making. But this only matters if people’s lives improve as a result of those decisions, from linking data together, from compiling information into evidence, and from applying evidence to those decisions.

The core reason data as a social determinant is such a critical concept is that data can be collected, linked, shared, and used responsibly to improve individuals lives. Improvements may manifest as enhancements in quality, reductions in systematic barriers or persistent challenges, identification or elimination of biases, or any number of other opportunities for improvements. It is through understanding the interconnectedness of the shared data system, and the complexity of social determinant data that collection, analysis, sharing and learning from data that progress can me made to address systemic issues.

Using data can enable meaningful change for communities, decision-makers, and policymakers in addressing social determinants, which affects people’s lives and better outcomes. Individual experiences and perspectives highlight the importance of collecting and analyzing data, then using data to inform deliberate action to solve problems. These actionable insights must remain at the forefront of policy and program design moving forward, including because of the interconnectedness of social determinant data. The conversation at govDATAx is a call to action for the data community to harness data responsibly and effectively to make a positive impact on societal issues.

CHRISTOPHER MURRELL is a manager of evidence and evaluation capacity at the Data Foundation.



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