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Starting a Data Academy: How Durham Did It, and How You Can, Too

Data can be powerful. But to really harness your data, you need people skilled in analysis, data management, and data-informed decision-making. Many cities are taking that lesson to heart and launching their own data academies to help employees learn to use data better. With careful planning and execution, your data academy can help elevate the conversations around data and build key skills for employees across your government.

Recently, we spoke with Anise Vance, Open Data Program Manager from Durham, North Carolina, on his experience with running a Data Academy in his city.

GovEx Academy: Before coming to Durham have you had any experience with Data Academies?

Anise Vance: No, I didn’t! Working for the City of Durham and Durham County has been my first foray in local government. I’ve been involved in community building and educational processes for over a decade, but that work did not center on data.

GA: What did you think about it once you began working on launching Durham’s Data Academy?

AV: I thought that it had the potential to be transformational. It is, however, a difficult task: choosing the right courses, developing appropriate materials, building up facilitators, coordinating the courses, and learning from experience, are all parts of what is a complex process.

GA: How did you partner with GovEx and others to help get set up for success?

AV: The most important thing: it got everyone on the same page. We are speaking the same language and have a vision for what we want to accomplish.

GA: Can you give an example of how the Data Academy has been useful to Durham staff?

AV: We recently started and we’re about to run our second test group. I think, so far, it has been helpful in exposing people to particular data-related tools.

GA: What challenges have you faced in building the Data Academy?

AV: Capacity. We have a grand vision! That said, we are hoping to scale that vision with the dedicated resources that we do have.

GA: What would be the top advice you would tell another city thinking of starting a data academy?

AV: Start small and prove the value with a few select initiatives, departments, and tools.

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If you’re thinking about running your own data academy, here are a few more tips to keep in mind.

  1.    Define your core audience

To maximize the impact of training, you need to clearly define who you want to train and what you want them to take away from data training. Without a clear sense of benefit for attendees, your academy may quickly lose momentum.

  1.    Plan around your organizational needs and priorities

Starting with a particular issue in the organization can help you get started and provide immediate benefit both to participants and the organization as a whole. If your organization needs more technical skills in analysis, focus on that. If you are focused on customer service, train on how data can help improve that priority area.

  1.    Pay attention to the little things

Make sure your location is right for the topic (if you expect people do to do analysis, they will need computers). Help the participants get to know each other to build longer term relationships. Think about how much time participants can really commit. Keeping these small items in mind will help ensure your training is providing value to participants.

  1.    Download our Data Academy Worksheet

Our worksheet is designed to help anyone considering launching their own academy to think through some basic structural questions to set up the academy for success.

For more information on how to start your Data Academy, email us at



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