Iowa’s Data Task Group Strengthens Data Collection at the Local Level

Data are essential to successful substance misuse prevention. They provide the information needed to understand problems, and inform the selection and implementation of prevention activities to address these problems. States frequently explore a combination of local, state, and national data sources to assess the substance misuse-related needs of their communities. But for small, rural states like Iowa, these sources don’t always paint an accurate picture.

“National datasets—like the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and National Survey on Drug Use and Health—aren’t always generalizable to small, rural counties,” explains epidemiologist and former Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) fellow Toby V. Yak, M.P.H., at the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH).

Yet data from the community and state levels—including hospital discharge records, birth and death records, and the Iowa Youth Survey—present their own set of challenges. For example, some data sets from individual counties may be too small to analyze, or to generalize to the larger state population. Furthermore, some counties are so small that they cannot share their data sets with the state without violating confidentiality.

“Confidentiality is a real problem, because counties need to share their substance use data with the state in order to receive state prevention funding,” says Yak. “Both the counties and the state need this information to plan their substance abuse prevention activities.”

To address these data challenges, the Iowa State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup (SEOW) created a data task group that is actively working with communities to collect the information they need to engage in a meaningful, data-informed prevention planning process. And across the state, these data are being used to help policymakers allocate substance misuse funding where it’s needed most.

The Data Task Group

Launched in 2009—after the state received its Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF SIG)—Iowa’s data task group comprises a diverse group of individuals with extensive experience in federal and state data collection processes. The cross-sector workgroup includes representatives from IDPH and the Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation, an independent research organization located at the University of Iowa, as well as stakeholders from across the state system. Those stakeholders include the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, the Department of Education, and Department of Public Safety.

Lessons Learned

States need to identify and address data gaps in order to truly understand the scope of substance misuse and related consequences among its residents. Ways to address data gaps include:

  • Forming data task groups, which are an efficient, effective way to accomplish specific data-related tasks
  • Creating data collection and analysis criteria to help ensure uniformity of data throughout communities within a state
  • Creating user-friendly data briefs that outline findings on substance misuse across the state that communities can use to inform prevention programming

“Data task groups are a valuable way to accomplish specific data-related tasks,“ explains Debbie Synhorst, prevention consultant for IDPH. “The charge for this group was to find ways to identify and address data gaps. We also wanted the group to help communities on the ground, showing them how to collect and analyze valuable data that they could use for their prevention planning.”

The SEOW also looked to the data task group to help create uniform data collection and analyses processes across communities. Under the SPF SIG, the state had planned to focus its prevention efforts on both underage drinking and adult binge drinking. But upon examining existing state data sets, the data task group found little uniformity among data collection and analysis procedures—making it difficult to assess the true nature of these problems across the state.

To address this challenge, the data task group developed a clear set of criteria to guide the future collection and analysis of all state data, including who should be surveyed, the required sample size, frequency of collection efforts (every two years), and what should be measured (both consumption and consequences of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs). The group then shared these criteria statewide, to help local communities and counties understand how to collect sound data and report their findings.

“The SEOW took the criteria and related data collection procedures developed the data task group, and compiled them into county assessment workbooks that we distributed throughout the state,“ Synhorst says. “Counties now had the tools and support to collect quality data that they could use.”

Using Data to Inform Local and State Prevention

With counties across the state now producing data informed by a consistent set of criteria, a clearer picture of the state’s underage and binge drinking problems emerged.

“We found that drinking rates in many parts of Iowa were often higher than national averages,” says Yak. “With this information in hand, the affected counties could then begin identifying and implementing evidence-based prevention programs that were the right match for the unique issues they faced.”

To support communities in their decision-making, the SEOW created and disseminated a series of substance misuse data briefs based on the work of the data task group—including a brief focused on adult binge drinking in Iowa at IDPH (PDF | 574 KB) and underage drinking in Iowa at IDPH (PDF | 6 MB).

“The data briefs are very user-friendly,” says Synhorst. “State prevention agencies and local communities use them to inform their prevention planning and programming. We have updated the briefs so they stay useful, and also create briefs as new topics of interest emerge. Right now, we are working on heroin and marijuana data briefs.”

“We use the briefs to present recommendations for prevention and treatment programs,” says Yak. “And people pay attention, because they understand that these recommendations are based on the data.”

For more information on the Data Task Group of the Iowa SEOW, contact Toby Yak at or visit the Iowa SEOW website.

Learn more about the work of SEOWs.

Last Updated: 09/12/2017