Happy 20th Birthday, VAdata!

More than twenty years ago, America Online dominated the World Wide Web, floppy disks were disappearing, and music fans were avoiding the high cost of CDs by downloading music from Napster. When VAdata was first envisioned in 1996, domestic or sexual violence agencies did not use the internet as a primary resource or use email as a routine method of communication, but a group of dedicated sexual and domestic violence advocates saw opportunities for these technological advances to improve their work. They wanted to develop a way to collect information on the experiences of survivors of sexual and domestic violence and describe the services provided to them by agencies around the Commonwealth.

Happy 20th birthday, VAdata! This month 20 years ago, VAdata was born! Hear, Hear to 20+ more years!Without considering that the idea to create a database that “lived” online was groundbreaking, these advocates set out to create a data collection system that was responsive to users as well as responsible to survivors. From the beginning, statewide data collection prioritized the confidentiality and privacy of survivor data. This meant that Virginia was ahead of the curve when the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibited the collection of identifying data in electronic systems in 2006. VAdata was the first electronic data collection system in the nation to collect information about sexual and domestic violence, and to this day, remains the only electronic data collection system that is managed by an advocacy agency. VAdata’s management by an advocacy agency allows its focus to remain survivor-centered, trauma-informed, and safety based as it has always been.

As VAdata comes of age, here are some reflections of its journey from a few of its creators. Happy Birthday, VAdata!


“What makes me most proud to have been involved in VAdata project is that survivors and interest of survivors was always front and center of our work. Yes, we were developing a data collection system to meet a variety of needs, including those of funders and policy makers. However, the project’s leadership understood that those data elements are personal information about survivors and their families and thus were committed to evaluating the impact of collecting and reporting ANY data element, no matter how small, on the survivors–in the short term and longer term; on an individual level and in the aggregate.”

–Kristine Hall, currently at the University of Virginia Medical Center and former Policy Director for the Action Alliance.

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“VAdata turns 20! When I started in this field back in the day, collecting information for grants was VERY different. We had ‘contact sheets’ that we filled out to document the services we were providing. I used pen and paper ‘tic’ marks to count the services that were being provided. My next endeavor was to use Xcel. So I created a looooong spread sheet. Because VAdata still didn’t collect everything I needed, I learned how to use Access to build our own data base.  Teaching Access to other staff was cumbersome. This helped but Access was still was not user friendly.

Then the most wonderful thing happened. VAdata was born! A lot of time and energy went into creating something that local programs could use safely and securely. The Action Alliance drew off a great deal of wisdom from other’s in the research and data community to make VAdata happen.

When I first began using VAdata, I still had to have a separate data base because it did not collect all the information I needed for each of our grants and work plans. However, over the years VAdata has matured and gotten better with age! I still use spread sheets as a check to VAdata, but I currently use VAdata exclusively for reports and work plans. In addition to using it for reports, I use VAdata to identify trends in services. I can pull data to help gather local data or data elements that are specific to something we are tying to define.

VAdata has made my data needs so much easier and much more advanced. So happy birthday VAdata and thanks for giving so much to local programs! YOU ROCK!”

-Robin Stevens, Services Coordinator at CHOICES, the Council on Domestic Violence of Page County.

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“In the mid 1990’s Madonna and Whitney Houston rocked the radio, Bill Clinton was President and there was a terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. I was the Director of Empowerhouse (then RCDV) at that time. I remember working with the husband of one of the staff to develop our first data collection system, using dBASE. It was a life saver. We had previously been using multi-colored codes on the bottom corner of every client form, service document and hotline call sheet to tally our statistics for our VDSS grant reporting. The process of compiling the report took a good day. This was barely steps away from punch cards, but I digress and date myself.  Our fancy dBASE program reduced our grant reporting time by hours, but it was very far from perfect.

Y2K. For those of us who are old enough, the year 1999 may bring back waves of fear on what would happen come January 1, 2000. Would electric grid work? Would water flow? But more importantly, would our donated Compaq 286sx computers work? How would our statistics calculate properly? Birth dates were reflected in the computer by the last 2 digits of one’s birth year and circling back to 00 would muck with the calculations.

Thankfully, folks at the Action Alliance (then VADV) were forward thinkers. When new opportunities became available before Y2K, they geared up to develop a new data collection system for all domestic violence programs to use. The Action Alliance staff was a fraction of the size it is now and I’m sure that the small amount of grant funding they received to develop VAdata didn’t come close to covering the time that they invested. This was a big deal and every agency across the state had its own ideas of what this should look like. I joined one of the committees, because I, too, had ideas. We had an instant thirst for data and wanted to collect everything. One of our challenges was to differentiate the information we wanted to know from the information we needed to know. We sorted through all the potential data fields and landed with a minimized plan. 

While the Action Alliance staff worked with programmers, codes, technical issues and countless other problems, local DV agencies dealt with their own new problems. They were all going to need computers, but not all were there yet. Some had computers, but no access to the internet. They had to get additional phone lines or risk being bumped offline by an incoming call (dial up modems were our only choice!) The lucky few with computers and internet often had only one centrally located computer shared by all staff.

Technology might not have been part of our grassroots beginnings. And looking back you might not think that the first version on VAdata was cutting edge. But that’s where you might be wrong. VAdata was the first web-based statewide domestic violence data collection system. Virginia had the capacity to run reports for a single agency or for the whole state with just a few clicks while other states were still hand compiling their data. 

When VAdata was in the planning stages, there was so much excitement. Ideas being tossed out there on how it would look, act, the information we could gather to better help victims, survivors, caring friends, judicial system, professionals, etc. As it became a reality the excitement never left me, the Hotline Form that was created and in the beginning it turned out to be quite a few pages long, there were so many things we wanted to gather information on. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of tweaking done to bring it to a manageable size of questions that wouldn’t overwhelm the Advocate or Caller.

Our work today isn’t the same as it was Y2K. Thankfully we are adaptable to the changing needs of our communities and of families experiencing violence. VAdata doesn’t look the same today as it did then, either. She’s grown and adapted and has met just about challenge that’s come her way. Congratulations on your 20th Birthday VAdata, and thanks for keeping track of all the services we’ve provided!”

–Nancy Fowler, Program Manager for the Office of Family Violence at the Virginia Department of Social Services.

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“I was lucky to be part the VADV staff that traveled around the state to train all of the DV and SA programs in VA. Not only was VAdata new to us but the Internet and computers were very new to some of the programs. Some folks that came to the trainings had never had the opportunity to have worked with a computer. So not only were we training on VAdata we were also doing a quick 101 on Using Computers and getting on the internet. I remember one training where after we had gotten everyone on the mock VAdata internet, we were explaining how to tic off the check boxes on a form. We had told the audience to take their mouse and put it on the little square and click on it. We had one person say her mouse wasn’t working, when I got back to her she was holding the mouse against the screen covering the box and a lot more of the form and clicking away, as hard as I tried a little snicker still emerged from me. Happy Birthday VAdata, I still get excited with the information you’re able to give us!!!”

–Debbie Haynes, Coalition Operations Manager at the Action Alliance.

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“Where were you in the fall of 1999? I was traversing the Commonwealth with coworkers, introducing sexual and domestic violence agencies to VAdata, their new data collection system. Three years earlier, state funding agencies expressed a need for a Y2K-compliant database to collect, at minimum, federally required data from funded sexual and domestic violence agencies. The Action Alliance (then known as VADV) applied for and received funding from VAWA the first year those funds reached Virginia. For 3 years, a dedicated and creative committee met to design the country’s first internet-based data system, collecting data from survivors of both sexual and domestic violence. The committee included state coalitions, state funders, advocates and directors from SDVAs, university researchers, and database/internet experts.

Our relationship with technology was VERY different in 1999. Most SDVAs had no more than one computer, dial-up connections, and limited email experience. Most of us did not have cell phones, nor did we see a need for them. In the nonprofit world, the concept of an internet-accessed database was novel and ahead of its time. A few staff in SDVAs were excited, but most were apprehensive about giving up their paper and pencils for keyboards and monitors. Twenty years later, we know that while the learning curve was steep in 1999, we made the right leap into the future.

Like all technology, VAdata has done nothing but evolve and grow in 20 years. The VAdata programmers/system managers at Advanced Data Tools Corp. have assured that VAdata is supported by current and robust applications. The VAdata Advisory Committee has assured that the system is responsive to new data needs from funders, SDVAs, and policy makers. And they have done so while being consistently mindful of confidentiality and an absolute commitment to only collect data that will serve to improve quality of life for survivors and their children. Information from VAdata has been used to enhance intervention services, advance prevention efforts, increase funding, and inform policy. VAdata has been referenced in the VA General Assembly and even in the U.S. Congress.

I was the first VAdata coordinator and continued in that role for 20 years until my retirement in 2016. In writing this blog, I was asked to consider VAdata’s future. This request caused me to reflect on my personal growth as a result of my work with VAdata. I am by nature a “finisher,” and working on this project taught me A LOT about the value of thoughtful processing. My hope for VAdata is that it will continue to be a thoughtful process, one that embraces advancing technology while also being mindful of making the system work well for all of its cohorts and maintaining its core commitment to survivors as a tool that protects privacy and dignity while providing information to improve conditions for survivors and enhance prevention for everyone.”

–Sherrie Goggans, nurturer of VAdata from the late 1990s until her retirement from the Action Alliance in 2016.

 

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