The Data Gap

As data-driven services and programs have grown, so has the data disparity between the rich and the poor.
January 2015
Louisville, Ky. Flickr/ Shannon Tompkins
Tod Newcombe
By Tod Newcombe  |  Columnist

Helping prisoners who have a substance abuse problem get back to a productive life isn’t easy. It’s even harder when these individuals have mental health issues too. The recidivism rate for offenders with drug addictions is extremely high -- nearly 73 percent, according to Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation for the city of Louisville, Ky. Smith is working on a project to help dual-diagnosed prisoners receive health care and substance abuse treatment. But one of the challenges he’s facing is pulling together all the data needed to help this vulnerable group. “The world of data is not perfect,” Smith says. “And when it comes to case management, certain data sets can be scarce.”

These gaps Smith’s program has encountered are a microcosm of a larger problem nationwide: a growing data disparity between the rich and poor. The importance of data-driven services and programs has grown significantly in recent years, especially in health care, education and financial services. But not all segments of society are benefiting from the explosion in data collection, leading to what some experts are calling a data divide. “We’ve already recognized there are gaps in technology that can significantly impact an individual’s ability to thrive,” says Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation and author of the report The Rise of Data Poverty in America. “If there’s also a lack of data, we will see a similar failure.”

The report highlights a number of potential data gaps that could affect certain individuals and communities. Infants born at state-of-the-art hospitals, for example, are monitored around the clock. By the time they leave the hospital, these little humans have already generated about 200 million data points. Babies born at less technologically advanced hospitals, however, often leave with no digital footprint whatsoever. The lack of data can impact how health dollars are spent down the road.

The effect of this divide can be seen in education too. Students in poorer neighborhoods can be cut off from access to the kinds of benefits that are common in data-rich school districts, where data analytics are used to make schools run more efficiently, to create more personalized learning systems and to provide better guidance in making decisions about post-secondary education. “Communities that are poor in data, as well as the individuals living in those communities, may fail to thrive,” Castro wrote in the report. “Rather than being the new oil, data may be the new oxygen.”

To close the data gap, Castro says, governments need to make policies that focus data collection programs on hard-to-reach and underrepresented communities; ensure that funding programs aimed at closing the digital divide also consider data poverty problems; make certain that digital literacy programs help individuals to understand data-producing technologies, such as social media; and encourage civic leaders in low-income neighborhoods to understand the benefits of data.

There’s also a more hands-on approach that CIOs can take in addressing the issue. They control the tools that can help governments make sure that the data they are collecting is the data they want. For instance, CIOs can visualize data on maps so policymakers can see where the gaps are. “They can also ask questions,” Castro says, “that can help create a continual feedback loop between the users of the data and the producers of the data.”

While it is important to close the data divide, it is also important to understand how data represents people. “We have a good handle on data collected by the city and the programs that use the data,” says Louisville’s Smith. But when he tries to use that data to connect people, it becomes clear there is a disconnect. It’s an issue that’s common throughout state and local government and can amplify the data divide. But, says Castro, there’s a solution. “It’s about putting social policy into the IT shop.”