The Limits of Using Data in Decisions

I have often struggled in my work to fight against the notion that we need quantitative data as a precursor to believing the lived experiences of impacted people. I understand the impulse and the desire to ensure that we are making data-driven decisions.

At the same time, since I came into this government work as a civil rights attorney, I also understand the limitations of quantitative data. The data doesn’t always tell the full story. It also sometimes seems as though a lack of data becomes a justification for not doing the moral or just thing.

If the community is telling you as the government that serves them that X or Y policy is harmful, it seems a little disingenuous to say, “I hear you, but let me see if there is hard data to justify your perspective.” To the extent that we are seeking to engender more trust in government and a general feeling of caring, data as proof seems to be contrary to that goal.

If we are to look at government as a customer service driven entity, then this framing data as substantive evidence is probably not the best practice. Just imagine if your local coffee shop or any other vendor demanded longitudinal data before believing or responding to your dissatisfaction.

The problems with this framework aren’t hypothetical but have legitimate costs. Take, for instance, the fact that Black women complained for years about the discrimination they faced when they went through airport security. Recently, ProPublica reported that the screening machines are coming under more scrutiny – they may in fact be built in a way that renders discrimination inevitable:

“With Black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks,” said a TSA officer who works at an airport in Texas and asked not to be named. “Maybe, down the line, they will be redesigning the technology, so it can tell apart what’s a real threat and what is not. But, for now, we officers have to do what the machine can’t.”

Similarly, for years Black drivers’ complained of discrimination. As far back as 1990, the ACLU issued a study, titled Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on Our Nation’s Highways. Virtually every study done since has demonstrated that Black drivers don’t drive worse than White drivers (see here, here, and here). Yet, as of 2018, 41 states had a policy of suspending driver’s licenses for outstanding court debt rendering more than 7 million driver’s without a license.

This loss likely could have been significantly mitigated if the lived experiences of those most impacted were believed. Instead, it took people with more power, privilege, and access (lawyers, academics) to get the data, analyze the data and present it to other people with privilege, power, and influence (elected officials), to finally substantiate the pain and trauma of those closest to the issue.

Imagine how difficult it may be to enact policy around something where racial data, for instance, isn’t so easily culled, like parking tickets (though the available evidence suggests these things too have racial disparities).

At the Civic Design Lab, we intentionally try to combat this problematic practice. Our design process specifies that as we gather data, we will “center those most impacted by racial disparities, acknowledge past and present histories and outcomes, and believe the experiences of those impacted.”

We are also ensuring that the impacted community is present at each step of the ideation and solution generation processes. For more about how we are approaching our work, check out the previous posts about vulnerability, leadership, trusting the process, and failing safely.

The hope is that in doing so, we can move toward doing things because they are the right things to do, rather than using a lack of quantitative data as an excuse not to.

Have you experienced the community you work with voicing concerns about harmful policies and seen how data or a lack thereof are utilized as a reason not to act?

How are you combating this?

Brandon L. Greene is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is the Manager of the Civic Design Lab in Oakland. Brandon is a graduate of Boston University Law School where he was a Public Interest Scholar and Martin Luther King Social Justice Fellow. Previously, Brandon was an Attorney and Clinical Supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center where he created and lead the decriminalization of poverty clinic. Brandon’s article Depraved Necessities: Prison Privatization, Educational Attainment and the Path to Profit was published in 2013 by SRBLSA Law Journal. His forthcoming articles will be published in the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal and the Berkeley Criminal Law Journal. Twitter: @brandonlgreene. You can read his posts here.

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