Can Big Data Help Government Do Better? This Foundation Thinks So

As we've often discussed, philanthropy has been investing heavily in big data over the last year or two, and why not? Everyone's investing in big data, hoping to glean real insight from the mountains of information constantly accumulating in our digital world.

Much of the trailblazing is, of course, by profit-seeking corporations like Amazon or Walmart, as they look for more efficient ways to run their companies and sell products. Often cited to illustrate the capability of data science is the story of how retailer Target deduced that a teenage customer was pregnant based on a few not obviously baby-related purchases.

And since last year, funders have granted millions to academia for every area of research in data science. Not just the hard sciences, but researchers in the social sciences, medicine and public health, history and even literature are developing new systems to analyze troves of digital information and answer new kinds of questions. And of course, business schools are hot on data tools to model endlessly mutating puzzles like marketing and finance. Not to mention, well, pretty much everything else on campus.

So, business and academia are going all-in on data science, but the government not so much, according to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF.)  The LJAF says the public sector has been slow to adopt data and information technology tools, and has failed to adopt data-driven management strategies.

Governments still make no effort to determine whether social spending is effective or to restructure systems using data to produce better results, according to LJAF. All this may mean less efficient use of taxpayer dollars and less successful outcomes for the people the government programs aim to help.

LJAF recently announced a $7.4 million grant to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (HKS) to advance the use of data science by the school's Government Performance Lab, which seeks to improve government effectiveness. The lab is looking at a number of issues and problems, including educational achievement gaps, recidivism, and addiction.

“We believe that governments should be making much greater use of data in tracking program performance and implementing continuous improvement efforts,” LJAF Vice President of Public Accountability Josh McGee said. “Strategic collaborations between policymakers and researchers will help to unleash new strategies that improve the results state and local governments achieve with their spending.”

Support of data science is consistent with LJAF's focus on the use of evidence-based approaches to solve problems. We all wish that more of the complex questions and problems could be answered with quantitative certainty. Data science will undoubtedly progress and provide us with important new understanding in lots of areas.

But as some observers have pointed out, crunching data doesn't always get meaningful answers, even if there are vast amounts of data. Data science is a powerful tool that philanthropy should support, but unless funders see solid results from appropriate applications of the technology, overuse of "big data" as a buzzword may actually hurt its development.