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A Jewish data revolution

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Brandeis University unveiled its ambitious JDATA project at a learning session Friday at the Brandeis House in New York.

JDATA, funded with $1.5 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation and developed over the past two years, is essentially a website that allows Jewish educational organizations — in this case, day schools, part-time schools, camps, pre-schools and college campus organizations — to submit organizational information, from financials to school censuses. The idea is to create a comprehensive database about the field.

The platform allows participating schools, researchers and other users to sort the information by a number of factors, including geography, size of school, types of students and size of budget.

It’s a fascinating project that has been tested in 16 communities over the past year or so. If you have a few minutes, definitely check it out at  www.jdata.com and consider participating.

We will have more on this down the road.

Fundermentalist’s take: The project certainly has the potential to be transformational, and it could ultimately save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in social research. Brandeis is describing it as a gift to the field of Jewish education from Jim Joseph.

The interface seems very usable and, at least in the demo, seems very smooth. The directory alone would be valuable. If it works out as planned, having an up-to-date census of the Jewish educational system will be worth the $1.5 million price tag. Beyond that, if JDATA is able to capture the financial information it seeks, the Jewish world will finally have a price tag for Jewish education.

The project will provide a real number to take to philanthropists. We will know exactly how deep is the money pit we need to fill in order to cover the whole cost of Jewish education. And it certainly could help to inform funding decisions.

“In any other area of social public life, you have a department of education or department of health, or institutions that collect the basic information on what is going on in the sector,” said Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis’ Cohen Center and the Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at the university. “In our rainbow world of Jewish education, where everybody is a boat that floats or doesn’t on its own bottom, we don’t have the infrastructure to collect even the most basic simple information about what goes on.”

Much of Saxe’s job is conducting studies about the Jewish community; the new platform, he said, will augment his work, not diminish his work load.

“So much time and effort goes into collecting the basic numbers and into figuring out what is the basic information,” Saxe said. “We think it will increase the efficiency of work and the likelihood we can come to conclusions that have applicability.”

But there are pitfalls — namely, ensuring that the field is, in fact, participating in providing the data, and then ensuring the veracity of that data. Simply put, if the data isn’t complete or accurate, then the project is worthless.

Brandeis is not blind to the issue. According to Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center, who is overseeing JDATA, it is a significant concern. That’s why funders need to press their grantees to participate in the program, she said.

“This is absolutely critical, and part of the new thinking as we go back now to places who are already using it,” Sales said.

For example, Sales said, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has been a driving force behind the effort, and the organization has the ability to make that every camp participates in the JDATA project by insisting that future funding would go only toward camps that fill out their profiles completely. The camps have already been trained in a culture of providing data because the FJC requires it, according to Sales. The trick will be changing the culture in other sectors, she said.

Sales added that the FJC and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an umbrella organization for Jewish day schools, are contemplating imposing sanctions on institutions that fail to comply. In San Francisco, she said, preliminary talks are under way with major funders about joining together to create a policy under which foundations would not give funds to schools that do not participate.

The JDATA team is also working on the accuracy component for the project. But for now, it will rely on the honesty of organizations and a hands-on approach.

In the short term, Sales said, “We double check all of the data. We run the data and look for improbable values. If a school that has 100 children but then claims it has 500 in fifth grade, something is wrong. We get on the phone and we call them.”

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