Why Data Matters: A User’s Perspective

This blog post originally appeared in SSRC’s Parameters on July 26, 2017. You can access the original article here.

This piece is part of Parameters’ Data Stories series, and reads well in conversation with Ken Prewitt’s explanation of the Census crisis.

By Alex Powers and Marina Recio

To say that it has been a bad year for government data is an understatement. With the 2020 decennial census around the corner, the Census Bureau finds itself underfunded and without a leader after its director stepped down earlier this year. The decennial census is the most consequential survey exercise in the country; from determining how billions of federal dollars are distributed to dictating congressional representation, the impact of the census cannot be overstated. As the Census Bureau nears a crisis, it is more important than ever to remember why high-quality government data matter for Americans.

Inveterate innovator Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” That adage holds true today—without doing the work to learn about the world, there is little we can do to change it. The need for actionable data is important enough to be enshrined in our Constitution, within the provision that established the United States Census. Unlike censuses in other countries, which were meant to tax or conscript, the United States Census was the first one designed to empower; it was—and still is—the basis of representation in Congress and ultimately government spending.

Publicly available data are tremendously valuable and empowering. To give an example close to home, without these data, our organization, Measure of America—a project of the Social Science Research Council— would not have the raw materials necessary for our calculations of life expectancy at birthyouth disconnection, and many other vital measures of the lives of ordinary Americans.

These calculations, in turn, provide the public health workforce, community organizations, youth training programs, and philanthropies with important statistics to inform their work. We learned, for example, that California’s Latinos, on average, outlive whites in the state by 3.6 years. In the Baltimore metro area, Asian Americans outlive African Americans in the same city by an average of 17 years (90.5 years vs. 73.4 years). We learned that, though fewer young people are disconnected from school and work today than were before the peak of the Great Recession, about one in four young people ages 16 to 24 who are Native American or live in the rural South are still disconnected.

The hallmark of our work, and a product of openly available data, is a measure of well-being and access to opportunity in American communities called the American Human Development Index. It is based on the time-tested index used by the United Nations each year to measure development in every country. This index connects three basic areas of life—health, education, and standard of living—on one scale, allowing well-being comparisons between places and groups.

For health, our American Human Development Index requires life expectancy at birth, a basic summary measure of survival. Using mortality and population data from an agreement with the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have calculated life expectancy at birth for every US state, congressional district, major metro area, and for the major racial and ethnic groups in each of these geographies.

These data have been cited in theLancet, the American Journal of Public Health, and over forty other journal articles as well as twenty-six books since we began in 2008. They are the benchmark used by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for international comparisons and have been used by state and local health departments across the country. Illinois has used them to study their aging population, New Orleans to map domestic violence, amongst many others. In short, there is tremendous demand for these data as a basis for research, policy, advocacy, and local actions to build healthier communities. And without the costly investment of public agencies in data collection, these next steps would not be possible.

As we discuss what we should invest in as a nation, let’s keep in mind that government data is not a luxury; it is a public good and a necessity. Our jobs, and those of many other researchers (from hedge fund analysts and geologists to historians and cancer geneticists), are dependent on the government to collect and make data available that no other organization has the capacity to produce. Without it, we would know much less about the world we live in—and what we can do to improve it.