How should we approach data collection? (VIDEO)

Collecting data for STARS is different for every organization. It will vary based on how many people you have on your team, who you have to ask for data, which credits you pursue, what process works best for you, and many other factors.

VIDEO: Introduction to Data Collection

Below are some resources available to you and some examples of what has worked for other institutions.

Gaining Executive Support

Executive support can often streamline the data collection process. A memo or public statement from the president, chancellor, or other administrator to faculty and staff requesting support for the STARS data collection process, or an email request for sustainability data copied to or co-signed by a provost or other executive can serve as important encouragement for data providers to participate. You may even have a long-term sustainability goal, or a specific KPI that relates to sustainability benchmarking or performance that can further support participation in STARS. 

Data Entry Models

Because STARS is comprehensive, it is important to have a system in place to manage the data collection process. Some institutions manage the process in the Reporting Tool itself, while others use tools like collaborative Google Sheets to assign credits and track progress (access templates on the STARS website). Deciding on an approach to managing data collection and tracking progress in advance will help keep you focused and on schedule.

When it comes to actually entering data into the Reporting Tool, you have a couple of options. 

  1. A single person (or a team of two people) is in charge of entering data into the Reporting Tool. This individual has a STARS account and can make changes to the STARS submission. All data will be provided to this single individual or team. This provides an element of quality control and ensures that someone has a full picture of what’s being submitted, but this can also mean additional workload on this individual or team.
  2. Numerous individuals responsible for entering data for their specific credits or fields. This can be a much more efficient option, but a potential drawback is the potential for less control and  knowledge of content that is being updated. 

Note: There are multiple levels of access (Admin, Data Entry, Observer). If you give someone data entry access, they will have access to all of the credits, not just the ones they need to edit.

Which model you choose depends on what you think will work best for you and your institution.

Regardless of how you decide to enter data, we highly recommend that you save changes frequently and backup your data in a central location. This is particularly important if you decide to type out any descriptive responses directly into the Tool. Consider adopting a shared file storage system that includes drafts of credit responses. 

Who’s on your team?

There are several stakeholders to consider as being part of your team:

  1. The sustainability champion – a single energetic individual who leads the process.
  2. Sustainability office or committee – a group of diverse campus stakeholders that each take responsibility for coordinating data collection for specific subcategories or credits. If you have a sustainability office or committee, even if they aren’t actively engaged in gathering data, they may be helpful in determining who are the best folks to ask or they might know of an initiative that could be recognized in a particular credit that you weren’t aware of. Having a wide group of people engaged in someway in the process can be really helpful.
  3. Students in STARS-related courses – usually led by an enthusiastic academic staff person, courses may be created to focus solely on STARS or STARS may be integrated into an existing course.  
  4. Student projects/internships – for example, STARS could be a thesis project for a graduate student or the focus of student interns for course credit.
  5. Data providers distributed across campus – for example, give staff, students and other data providers direct access to the Reporting Tool and/or other collaborative tools.

Timeline and Process

STEP ONE: Which credits should we pursue?

The first step of the data collection process is to figure out which credits you’ll be pursuing. 

A great place to start is with applicability. Look over the STARS 2.2 Credit Checklist, as well as the 2.2 Technical Manual and mark any credits that are not applicable to your institution. You may even want to make a copy or download a copy of this spreadsheet and gray out any credits that you plan to mark as Not Applicable in your submission.

Next you’ll want to think beyond applicability; even if a credit is applicable to your institution, that doesn’t mean that you must pursue it. You’ll want to ask yourself:

  • Which credits could be easily earned?
  • Which are the most relevant?
  • Which are unlikely to be earned for this submission?

This is going to require you to get fairly familiar with each credit, which means becoming comfortable with the criteria outlined in the Technical Manual.

Example: When you start the data collection process, you might learn that the investment credits would be difficult to pursue. Even though you might mark several of these credits as Not Pursuing so that you can focus your immediate time and energy on other credits, this might be the start of a conversation about what you could do to improve in the future. 

Most credits may be completed with readily available data, however some credits require the completion of an assessment or inventory. For example, the Academic Courses credit requires an inventory of the institution’s sustainability course offerings. The process of completing these assessments can have enormous value in terms of setting baselines and identifying opportunities for improvement, but it can also take some time. It is therefore helpful to plan an approach to these credits early on in the process.

STEP TWO: Map out data contacts

STARS requests data that will need to be sourced from diverse departments across campus. This process helps build relationships and also encourages staff members and faculty to better understand the role their departments can play in building institutional sustainability. Locating the departments and individuals that have the information you need can involve some detective work, so allow time to “map” where sustainability data live on campus. 

The first tab of the STARS 2.2 Credit Checklist contains the information for you to mark credits as Not Applicable or Not Pursuing. On the next tab, you’ll find a spreadsheet for tracking your data contacts for each credit. 

As you’re going through the Technical Manual to understand what type of data will be needed, you can start adding contact names and information to this spreadsheet so that you’re ready for some of the next steps in the process.

STEP THREE: Reporting timeframes

Before you start reaching out to your data contacts, you’ll want to understand the reporting timeframes so that you can tell your contacts the exact year for which you need data. 

There are two common timeframe requirements for credits. There are some exceptions, but the bulk of STARS credits use these two timeframes.

  1. Reporting current information as of the date of submission. 
  2. Reporting the most recent information available from within 3 years prior to the submission date. 

Some credits are qualitative, so it will be easy to determine what the most up to date information is that you can provide. Others, such as the Water Use credit, are based on a performance year. The performance year you choose will depend on when you plan to submit your report and what data is available. You are welcome to report data from academic years or fiscal years and you are not required to use the same baseline/performance years for each credit.

STEP FOUR: Introduction emails

While you are familiarizing yourself with STARS and figuring out exactly what data you need and from whom, you may want to go ahead and send out some introduction emails to folks you KNOW you’ll be asking for data. This can soften your future data request by giving them a heads up about what STARS is and the timeline you have in mind for gathering data and submitting the report. You can find email template(s) on the STARS site: Forms and Templates

Tip: When you send out your introduction email, it may be helpful to mention the timeline you have in mind for reporting, and the potential deadline for data. Setting a faux deadline can also ensure that you stick within your submission timeframe. For example:

  • Actual submission deadline: January 2025
  • Faux deadline for data: December 2024

STEP FIVE: Create data collection forms

A brand new resource we’ve released with version 2.2 are our editable Google docs for 2.2, which can be downloaded or copied and customizable for your data collection needs.

All you’ll need to do is download these documents to your drive, or as a word document. You can then customize them for each individual that you need to send them to, or you can provide access to multiple people and color code or flag certain fields for them to fill out. 

It can be helpful to customize them for each contact because if you only need three data points from someone, you might not want them to be overwhelmed or distracted by the fact that the credit is asking for 10-20 data fields. However, other folks may need to fill out an entire credit and have all of the supporting criteria information available to them. You’ll learn what works best for the individuals at your institution and for you. 

STEP SIX: Outline YOUR data collection process

Now that you have best practices and examples, you can determine what type of process will work best for you. For instance, one process might look like the following sequence of emails:

  • Introduction to STARS
  • Initial data request
  • Back and forth emails to clarify criteria and questions; possibly to set up an in-person meeting
  • Check in on progress
  • Upcoming deadline reminder
  • Follow up regarding the submitted report
  • Thank you when the rating is awarded

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