Getting Started With Data

“How should I decide what to work on first in my community?”

Maybe you have a single project in mind for your community and you need others to support you and get involved (our Getting Started With Others lesson can help–download it here!), or it’s likely that you have identified a problem in your community, but you have no idea where to go from there.  

How do we move from problem identification to action?

Often, people can get stuck in an endless loop of identifying problems they want to fix in their communities. You make the list, stare at the list, then find more issues to deal with, but you never actually figure out a solution. Let’s break out of this endless cycle by utilizing data to drive our decision-making processes! 

You should know that we are not talking about numerical data, or data that you use to calculate profit; this version of data and research is focused on finding out who else in your community shares your views and what you can do together to make your community dreams a reality.

Start Talking With Your Community

The first step to any community improvement work is to perform what is called participatory research. This means that you are going to talk to people–your neighbors, your friends, your elected officials, business owners, young people, and others in the community. By chatting with community members, you will get a good understanding of what others find important and possible solutions that others think are possible. You will also find out who cares about the same issues as you so that you can start to build your team!


The activities below will help you start conversations with others in your community so you start your participatory research on the right foot.


Please complete at least one of these activities within your community to begin understanding what your community finds important, what your community thinks is missing, and/or what ideas people in your community have for fun projects! Note: we’ve included activities for both one-on-one conversations and large events in a public setting, like a school open house or community festival. 


  • One-on-one Conversations – This tactic is best used in communities where people are not generally already working together, or there isn’t yet an expectation that things happen in teams.  Your goals are to have conversations about your community, determine who is concerned about the same things you are, and discuss any projects community members already have in mind.  Make sure you collect contact information for everyone you talk to; they may become your future teammates.  Ask questions about what the individual finds important, what problems in the community concern them, and any possible solutions. Another great approach is to ask for five things are that are on their minds–this helps the conversation flow and provides some structure to it.


  • Group Data Gathering Methods Sometimes, your only chance to collect data for decision-making purposes is in a public group setting. This means you will have to become creative with how you gather a large amount of information in a short time. This kind of data collection might take place at a local fair or festival, a park in your community, or by setting up near local businesses that attract visitors. One of the easiest ways to gather your information is to ask a question on a posterboard or whiteboard and let participants write in their answers. If you are asking for people to vote, you can include the options on the board and ask participants to either checkmark or place a sticker on their vote. 

Community Development in Action

The Blair Mountain Centennial Celebration is the result of two years of planning driven by the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan with a team of supporting community members and local leaders. The Centennial Celebration is a series of events taking place across nine communities throughout the state with a focus on the Southern Coalfields. This large-scale planning effort began as a series of one-on-one and public conversations in early 2019 in the targeted communities.  The planning team held a series of open public meetings to hear from what communities are interested in, and the project now has dozens of partners and events all over the state. This story proves that a team doesn’t have to be large to be mighty. Visit their Blair100 project site here for more information!

Ready to keep going?