VLDS - A Game Changer
February 16, 2016
Included in the Virginia Department of Social Services VLDS database are data on enrollees in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and VIEW (Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare) programs from 2005 through 2014. A research project looking at outcomes of VIEW program participants and the cost effectiveness of various employment services offered to enrollees is underway. And we are in the early stages of developing requirements for several basic reports summarizing education and employment outcomes of SNAP, TANF, and VIEW enrollees.
Over the next year we plan to add Foster Care, Child Protective Services, and Child Care data to our VLDS database. VLDS allows the agency to investigate general questions about populations served (or under-served) in ways we have never been able to pursue before and with turnaround time that simply wasn’t possible before.
For example, we have never been able to evaluate the impact food security, as provided by the SNAP program, has on the academic success of young children. Do children whose family receives food stamps miss fewer days of school and do better on standardized tests than children from other low income families that do not participate in the SNAP program?
In the past a researcher interested a question like this would have to approach each agency with a request to collect data necessary to conduct the investigation. They would need to get IRB (Internal Review Board) approval to contact clients and ask for their consent to release their data from the various agency databases, and they would have to request and hope that the agencies would agree to share their data in such a way that would allow records for each individual to be matched across agency data sets. It could take months to get all the agreements and more months to get responses back from all the individuals. Even then the researcher would be lucky to have several hundred people who agreed to release their data for the study. With the VLDS a researcher still has to get endorsement and approval from a sponsoring agency. But the time required to acquire the data is a fraction of what it used to be. And the VLDS returns every record that meets the conditions in the query. So instead of having a few hundred observations, a research could potentially have several hundred thousand observations.
The “time to value” for VLDS is phenomenal because most research does not require knowing who any of the individuals are in the data set. All that is necessary is that it is a representative sample of the population you are interested in. By eliminating the personal identities of everyone in the data returned to the researcher, the process of acquiring data is greatly simplified and shortened. This means researchers can spend a lot more of their time (and money) actually conducting analysis and writing up the results.
Because the agency datasets in the VLDS contain information on every individual in the various programs each year we now have the opportunity to describe the entire population of citizens we serve in ways we never could before. This will provide insight into patterns and relationships we either knew existed but couldn’t quantify, or never knew existed. It will allow agencies to better evaluate their program policies and the approaches and strategies used in the past to determine what works best. In some cases current assumptions will be confirmed. In others prevailing assumptions will be shown to be incorrect.
The value of the VLDS cannot be overstated. For population studies it is a game changer.