Communities and service providers typically are able to articulate their pressing problems. But bringing data to the table allows the program developer to demonstrate the magnitude of the issue, compare their community to others with respect to prevalence and consequences, identify subgroups and geographic areas where the issue is most acute, and make the case to funders as to why intervention is necessary.
A good needs assessment provides the foundation for program development. Trend data may suggest that some issues are getting worse over time, for example, obesity, crime or substance use. However, cross sectional data can also suggest which problems are elevated and which age groups or population groups are most likely to experience the problem. In addition, since many interventions represent programs that are located in a particular neighborhood, district, or catchment area, it is helpful to have data to identify the geographic areas of highest concentration and unmet need. Relevant data can be obtained from special data collection efforts or from available public records, such as child welfare, crime, education, and health data systems, including birth and death records. It should be recognized, however, that some forms of official data may under-represent prevalence. For instance, most federal and state child maltreatment data includes only cases reported to child protective services agencies. Data relying on contact with social services agencies especially under represent the prevalence of social problems in non-poor neighborhoods (Theodore, et al., 2005).
Ideally, data should be examined for the community to be served, to identify those issues that are particular concerns for the community in question, whether or not they represent problems for the country or the state or city as a whole. For example, Communities that Care fields an in-depth Youth Survey of risk and protective factors completed by students in schools (Arthur, Hawkins et al., 2002; Hawkins, Catalano & Kuklinski, 2011). Results, augmented by archival data, are compiled into a community portrait and shared with community representatives and officials, asking them to select the issues that pose problems for children and youth in their community. This process identifies risk and protective factors at the local level and helps assure that intervention efforts target issues that are problematic for a community and about which there is a perception that action is needed.