Special Olympics International (SOI) use the influence of sports to change social perceptions and help to improve the lives of those with Intellectual Disabilities (ID). With over 200 million people around the world with ID, SOI see data as a valuable asset not only to improve the services that they provide, but help inform health initiatives to work with those with ID.
SOI has been collecting data on their athletes for over 16 years now, keeping track of the number of athletes, volunteers and family members participating in their programmes around the world. Referred to as their census data, the wealth of information SOI can provide through this process is second to none for both the people who work and participate in the organisation, but also in the form of valuable health data on their participants that can be used monitor and maintain the health of athletes with ID.
As with any new initiative, there were hurdles when SOI first started to seriously collect census data. With a global network, it was challenging to communicate to everyone the how, why and what that was involved in data collection. It takes time to implement training programmes and really get to grips with facilitating change within the business when people are so used to doing things a certain way.
Mary Davis, SOI’s Chief Executive Officer, said: “At the time, back in 2002, there was an understanding that capturing this information would be essential for the movement but how important and to what extent it could and couldn’t be used has evolved, along with the evolution of technology and our use of data generally”.
The initial data collected was relatively basic. The 2002 Census included information on participants like sport played, gender, age group and whether they took part in the Athlete Leadership Programs (ALPs), a programme that enables young athletes to become mentors to encourage their peers, training them to become leaders both within the organisation and within their community.
Over time, the requests for data grew to encompass more of SOI’s individual programmes. On the Athletes Participation Summary (APS) it included data for programmes such as Young Athletes (a sports initiative for children both with and without ID), Athletes in Training, Coaching programmes for 6 – 7-year-olds and the Certified Coaches programme. The census also included information for SOI’s Unified Sports initiative that works to join people with or without ID to build inclusive sporting communities. For this, they needed data on both the athletes and the partners (the SOI term for athletes without ID who participate in Unified Sports), data on the three Unified Sports models (Recreational, Player Development and Competitive), as well as the number of coaches participating in the initiative.
By gathering this data, SOI is now able to align their resources with their participation levels, both now and in the future. They can look at the efficacy of new sports and programs that have been added on a local level, and compare that to how they perform both regionally and globally. With a centralised Census implemented, the resulting data is more reliable, giving a better understanding of SOI’s footprint in individual sports by gender, age group as well as by region. This information is vital in safeguarding the future growth of SOI as it helps with receiving grants for individual programmes as well as creating sponsorship and campaign opportunities.
“If we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that simply collecting the data is not enough. It’s only as good as the way it’s going to be used, and as such, the management of it can be a major challenge and dictates attention and focus. While there may be a department responsible for gathering the data, it’s important to make sure that information is shared and implemented across the entire organisation. The people who collect the data are likely not the ones who will feel the most impact of what that data may be telling them, so it’s important to have everyone on board”.
To overcome natural cultural barriers that occur within an organisation, SOI have started to present their data visually to more easily identify opportunities and challenges. By displaying the data in this way, it ensures that all departments are not only able to access it but understand and action it.
“Over the last few years, I think we’ve gotten better at collecting our data. However, there’s still is a lot that needs to be done. Collecting and storing our data has been an ongoing process of development – knowing how to use software to present that data in a way that generates discussion across our business has been immediate. We know we’ve only scratched the surface of our use of data so it’s exciting to think about our future and how it will be positively impacted as we make progress in this area”.
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