Answering Big Governance Questions Through Data

Andrew Young — September 12, 2014

We are living in an information age. Though data has always been produced, the current era has become characterized by technologies enabling the production, storage, and analysis of more data than ever before.

Despite its central role in driving innovation in a number of industries, governing institutions have not yet made the most of the opportunity afforded by data for addressing key governance issues. The leveraging of data – whether through increasing access to relevant data, improving the analysis of data, or granting citizens with better control of their own data – has the potential to address major challenges in the field of governance. For instance, evidence suggests that governing institutions are not using data to drive public decisionmaking. The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance is advancing a number of projects focused on leveraging data to help find answers to six key governance questions.

1. How can the release of open data catalyze new economic activity?

In the context of the Network, the GovLab is developing an extended report – built around individual case studies – highlighting the current and potential impact of open data on the economy. In particular, the report examines the ability of open data to act as a business asset that enables the creation of new products and services and the optimization of business practices by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups. The report takes the form of an Open and Business Model Framework, which provides a means for evaluating the impact of open data in terms of its direct benefit on SMEs, indirect benefits to clients and customers, indirect benefits to the wider economy and other indirect societal benefits. The report aims to give a clear understanding of the benefits of the wider release and leveraging of open data to help spur interest in the space among SMEs and to give policymakers a better grasp of the current opportunity space. This exploration of open data’s economic impacts complements the GovLab’s ongoing Open Data 500, the first comprehensive study of U.S. companies that use open government data to generate new business and develop new products and services.

2. How can citizens leverage small data to improve their health and wellbeing?

Deborah Estrin and Sheena Iyengar are advancing a project focused on learning how citizens can leverage small data traces – personal data produced through all manner of individual activity, such as physical movement or purchasing history – to mold and sustain healthy household choices. At the start, the project is exploring the use of small data and behavioral insights to nudge citizens toward making healthier selections at the grocery store. In a similar project, Erik Johnston is exploring the concept of “Quantified Communities” – which broadens the scope of the Quantified Self movement’s use of data to measure activity, health and wellbeing. The Quantified Community concept is being leveraged in two contexts: distributed heat solutions and improved civic planning. Quantified Communities is the only current project specifically focused on data-driven city-level innovation. Through the targeted collection and analysis of data, Quantified Communities is seeking to improve the coordination and real-world public health outcomes of Phoenix’s distributed citizen cooling centers, and to leverage citizens in the development of walkable, opportunity-rich communities connected to high-capacity public transit.

3. Does the analysis of social media data provide new pathways to improved governance?

Deb Roy and his team at MIT are advancing two social media data-related projects: See Something, Tweet Something and a case study of Jun, Granada. The former is focused on the intelligent collection and analysis of Twitter data in India to the end of using the platform as a citizen reporting system for improving public safety, particularly for women. For the latter, Roy is undertaking an in-depth data-driven case study of the small town of Jun’s efforts to leverage Twitter to improve the accountability and responsiveness of governance.

4. Can a new decentralized system for controlling and exchanging personal data improve the autonomy, transparency and trust of governance?

Sir Tim-Berners Lee and his team at MIT are developing a set of tools and protocols for improving individuals’ control of their own data. Crosscloud will allow citizens to use their personal data to move easily between competing applications, platforms and networks. Essentially, new personal data created in a Crosscloud application will be saved to a user’s individual Crosscloud space, where that user and that user alone will have the ability to determine how its used and by whom its accessed. The Crosscloud system is focused on enabling a decentralized, open system that can be used as infrastructure for a wide variety of new software and platforms, including other Network projects.

5. Can big data analysis provide insights that improve global health?

Anita McGahan is leveraging big data analysis to improve global health outcomes in two areas: identifying optimal marginal healthcare investments in India and reducing the constraining impact of intellectual property rights in global medicine. The India project is seeking to learn, through extended data analysis, which intervention – increased access to doctors, pharmacies or specialists – could produce the best health outcomes for citizens, especially the least fortunate. The intellectual property project is seeking to replace the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS requirement – which requires developing nations to adopt the U.S. patent system for drugs – with a data- and participation-based system for increasing access to lifesaving drugs around the world.

6. Can the integration of data science into other disciplinary perspectives lead to improved strategies for improving governance?

Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi are organizing regular convenings featuring experts working in the fields of political science and computer science, including individuals specifically focused on data science. These convenings will seek to break down barriers and facilitate outcome-focused dialogues between people working in these traditionally siloed disciplines. The convenings will seek to determine if combining technical expertise, including data analysis expertise, with social science can help to amplify the effects of the type of governance projects already being advanced in the political sciences and, perhaps more importantly, identify new opportunities for leveraging technology and data to create positive governance impacts.