The Missing Link: Data


Over the course of the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to attend two separate, multi-day symposiums. Both were hosted by the National Association of Counties. The topics covered in the symposiums varied widely, encompassing: homelessness; the opioid crisis; the poverty gap; managing disasters; urban expansion and sustainability; building the 21st century workforce; and social impact investing, to name a few.

As you’d expect, the topics were discussed at length, or at least as long as symposiums allow. The panels were comprised of both public officials and thought leaders from around the US. Each panel provided a brief account of the problem and descriptions of what was being done today. Each discussed the complexity of the individual issues. Each ended with a thoughtful discussion about ideas, possible solutions and remedies. And each included ideas about how future solutions should be measured to ensure success. As a diligent attendee, I took copious notes.

As always, I am on the lookout for new and overlooked ideas, trends and connections and solutions that I may be privy to. This week, I reviewed the printed agendas, the presentation handouts and my notes for thoughts and ideas that I could take back to my day job. It was the reexamination of my notes that supplied my thoughts for today’s article.

I’ve attended quite a number of these policy discussions. They tend to be very high level and broad in their thinking. Details and specifics are general and only vaguely focus on the elements and issues at the root of the topics. I’ve come to expect any discussion of solutions to be equally vague. Though these topics were complex and varied, one single idea kept reoccurring in each and every one of the public officials’ and experts’ discussions. As each panel discussed the past, present and possible future conditions of these complex issues, the mention of “data” kept reappearing.

It’s not that I’m surprised that the word “data” appears when public official and thought leaders describe these issues. It was the frequency that the word “data” was brought up. It was also the length of time spent describing the need for, and the use of data by every panel member. Having attended over two decades of these types of sessions –  for me – there was a turning point of sorts.

As practitioners, we are often hyper-focused on solutions to individual parts and pieces of the issues; the parts and pieces that match our job and the agency we work for. We are seldom able to ponder – let alone address – the circumstantial or indirect parts of the bigger issue.

Let me use homelessness as an example. We know that just putting a homeless person into a house doesn’t begin to address that person’s homelessness. There are of course, other factors. We know this, else we’d have solved the problem already. Solutions that counties build today are trying to reach beyond and provide solutions to the parallel issues like; employment, access and availability to transportation, addiction treatment and proximity to social support and mental health services.

In an effort to understand the numbers of the homeless within our communities, counties increased the use of technology to assist. The Point-in-Time (PiT) count is mandated each year by the Housing and Urban Development Department and is fulfilled by each county, throughout the country. Our counties are using this yearly effort to better understand not only the size of the problem but also to initiate regional collaboration with other counties and nonprofits. Counties are using the PiT data not only to measure the size of the problem, but they are also further examining the data, modeling the patterns and providing some understanding of the indirect causes that may not be apparent. There are counties using the data to analyze daily and seasonal migration patterns in order to predict service opportunities and gauge need and best location to provide these services.

And this is where the turning point occurred. In every case, the typical policy discussion expanded to include discussion of the circumstantial or indirect parts and issues. Detailed discussion about the resources needed from “other departments and agencies” that need to be brought to bear include: school system service data; measures of the economic health of a community or individual neighborhood; data from public safety and the health system; and the typical players like human social services.

So, in the end – what I hope I witnessed – is the turning point on how we approach our social issues. An approach that is more holistic, inclusive of every department and service that owns a piece or a part of the potential solutions and takes a detailed data-centric approach to all the connected issues.

Maps have always played the role of an assemblage of large amounts of data — often, types of data that are unrelated except for their geographic location. GIS technology continues this role in providing understanding and reference, furthering government’s ability to exploit the ever-increasing volume, velocity and variety of data dealing with our citizens. GIS provides the foundation for information integration. An approach that incorporates location into big data efforts — using geography as a platform — offers additional possibilities that data alone can’t provide.


Richard Leadbeater is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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