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Why Policymakers Should Learn to Be Data Analysts

To get the most out of evidence-based governing, they need training. More and more, it's becoming available.

Leading data expert Quentin Palfrey, right.
The killing of 14 high-school students and three school staff members in Parkland, Fla., last month has brought renewed debate on gun control, but it also has brought into stark relief how difficult it is to have that debate without adequate data on guns and the violence associated with them. Certainly congressionally imposed limitations on federal research are to blame for the fact that we do not know the answers to such basic questions as how many households own guns. But there's another reason for the lack of the data we need on guns and on other pressing societal problems: a failure to demand adequate data due to the absence of training and lack of data science know-how among those who govern.

Despite the tremendous potential to use data, as Chicago does to reduce foodborne illness, for example, and as every state does to advance public health's understanding about cognitive decline, much of the promise of such data-driven and evidence-based decision-making has failed to materialize because those in public institutions lack the experience needed for turning data into actionable insights through the effective use of data science -- the application of interdisciplinary, quantitative methods that transform data into useful information.

This stands in stark contrast to a broader movement toward evidence-based policymaking. Researchers with the Pew-MacArthur Results First initiative have identified more than 100 state laws across 42 states passed between 2004 and 2014 that support the use of evidence-based programs and practices. To produce more data-driven decision-making, explains Beth Blauer, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), what's needed is more investment in training those in public service.

Thankfully, there are more and more opportunities for that kind of training. Julia Lane at New York University, Rayid Ghani and Robert George at the University of Chicago, and Frauke Kreuter at the University of Maryland, for example, are offering what they call the Coleridge Initiative, which provides training programs to build capacity and knowledge, secure data research facilities to host confidential data, and a network that facilitates a community of practitioners. The program, which consists of a prerequisite tutorial followed by 10 training days over two weeks, costs $10,000 for government and nonprofit participants.

GovEx is offering what it calls "a system of trainings, technical assistance, resources, and other supports" to help public officials learn to use data to improve governance. The organization provides a range of offerings such as a "Data Science Specialization" program developed by Johns Hopkins University, which costs $441, as well as a free course developed by Udacity entitled "Intro to Data Science."

And our own organization, the Governance Lab at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, has an offering of its own: "Solving Public Problems with Data" is a free introduction to data science and data analytical thinking in the public interest that is designed as a gateway to these other more advanced programs. A crash course on data science technologies, data analytical techniques and data sharing methods, it covers a broad range of topics, from "Strengthening a Data Analytic Culture" to "Data Collaboratives: Creating Public Value by Exchanging Data."

The GovLab lecture series features almost a dozen leading data experts, including Quentin Palfrey, a former executive director of J-PAL North America; Carter Hewgley of Johns Hopkins; and Gideon Mann of Bloomberg. They share anecdotes, lessons and expertise from the field in a format designed to engage individuals who have committed to working for the public good but haven't had the opportunity to learn the basics of data and how it can be leveraged to achieve their public mission.

As Tom Steinberg, founder of the nonprofit digital tool builder mySociety, put it in an essay back in 2016, "The world's national, state and local governments don't have the right digital skills in the right quantities to meet the challenges of the coming century." That's still true, but courses like "Solving Public Problems with Data" have been designed with the understanding in mind that we do not necessarily need to start from scratch when approaching this issue.

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