Democratizing Data for Public Service

3 min read
Jul 22, 2020 10:25:14 AM

Where trust and transparency is key, data is critical. Whether you’re a city leader proving the value of your work, or an organization helping communities understand how people grow and thrive, data underscores the legitimacy of your efforts.

Data has always played a crucial role in decision-making and persuasion. Classical logic begins with the idea that two truths imply a third. To this day, "here is some data, and this is what it means” remains a powerful blueprint for inspiring action and making change.

Data and technology's role in supporting decision-making continues to evolve. We’re collecting more data than at any point in human history. This presents opportunity and expectation. It's no longer novel to combine narrative, data, and visualization to convey meaning and influence action, it's expected.

This is an especially tricky expectation to navigate in public service. Public servants concern themselves with wicked problems. The relevant data don’t represent abstract widgets, but communities and people. People with differing needs, beliefs, and circumstances. People whose lives are impacted by decisions and policy in nonuniform ways.

Data for public service comes with a moral imperative to the most good, but few public service organizations are positioned to leverage data's full potential.

Bridging the Gap

Data inspires action by making the complex simple and the abstract meaningful. But the expertise required to acquire, validate, and maintain data is significant. And even though ample data and analytics software exist, the skill to analyze, synthesize and visualize data is no small hurdle. The unfortunate reality is that most public service organizations lack this expertise. 

There’s a disconnect between the scope of the challenges our public servants address, and the tools at their disposal. Most public service organizations aren't built to do data science. Most data science tools aren't built for public service organizations.

Data is a powerful tool. It can uncover interwoven social issues that create public health crises. It can identify economic disparities across neighborhoods and communities. It can empower public safety officials with tactical insights that saves lives. But data alone won't inspire action. Progress requires the pairing of robust data-driven intelligence and passionate public servants.


Mapping Coronavirus' Economic Impact

The global Coronavirus pandemic is several crises in one. It is firstly a public health crisis that represents a serious threat to individuals, families, and communities' health. Intertwined with this public health emergency is an economic crisis. Historic levels of job loss are driving poverty, rent crises, credit crunches, food insecurity, and loss of access to healthcare. Adding to the turmoil is the civil unrest in many communities, brought on by long-simmering and strained racial tensions.

In a crisis, good information, clearly communicated, saves lives. This crisis has far-reaching impacts that are difficult to quantify, and harder to communicate. The data to target and lobby for interventions is difficult to make useful. But this difficulty hasn't tempered the need for action. This presents an opportunity for data expertise to inform a path forward.

To help solve these challenges, we developed the mySidewalk Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI). The EVI uses a carefully weighted array of almost 60 variables to answer questions such as: how vulnerable is my county, and how does that compare to other counties?


EVI Analysis


The EVI is an example of how data science can equip public servants with simple and persuasive tools to lobby for action: by making the complex simple and the abstract meaningful.

Over the coming weeks, we'll dig deeper into the EVI analysis as an example of the power of democratizing data for public service. We'll talk about how we developed this index, what we're learning from it, and ways in which it can be applied to empower and inform interventions. Our hope is that our work will seed a larger conversation about this crisis and how it is impacting communities across the country.



To learn more about the mySidewalk EVI and the results of the analysis, download the white paper here.


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