Home PublicationsCommentary Addressing Inequality and the ‘Data Divide’

Addressing Inequality and the ‘Data Divide’

by Daniel Castro
U.S. at night

In the coming years, communities across the nation will increasingly rely on data to improve quality of life for their residents, such as by improving educational outcomes, reducing healthcare costs, and increasing access to financial services. However, these opportunities require that individuals have access to high-quality data about themselves and their communities. Should certain individuals or communities not routinely have data about them collected, distributed, or used, they may suffer social and economic consequences. Just as the digital divide has held back many communities from reaping the benefits of the modern digital era, a looming “data divide” threatens to stall the benefits of data-driven innovation for a wide swathe of America. Given this risk, policymakers should make a concerted effort to combat data poverty.

Data already plays a crucial role in guiding decision making, and it will only become more important over time. In the private sector, businesses use data for everything from predicting inventory demand to responding to customer feedback to determining where to open new stores. For example, an emerging group of financial service providers use non-traditional data sources, such as an individual’s social network, to assess credit risk and make lending decisions. And health insurers and pharmacies are offering discounts to customers who use fitness trackers to monitor and share data about their health. In the public sector, data is at the heart of important efforts like improving patient safety, cutting government waste, and helping children succeed in school. For example, public health officials in states like Indiana and Maryland have turned to data science in an effort to reduce infant mortality rates.

Many of these exciting advancements are made possible by a new generation of technologies that make it easier to collect, share, and disseminate data. In particular, the Internet of Everything is creating a plethora of always-on devices that record and transmit a wealth of information about our world and the people and objects in it. Individuals are using social media to create a rich tapestry of interactions tied to particular times and places. In addition, government investments in critical data systems, such as statewide databases to track healthcare spending and student performance over time, are integral to efforts to harness data for social good.

Unfortunately, while many communities have adopted these technologies, others have not. With the emergence of smart cities, there is a risk that areas of the country lackinghigh-quality data will become “data deserts” by comparison and their inhabitants will suffer accordingly. It is quite possible that rather than being the new oil, data is in fact the new oxygen, and without access to it, communities cannot thrive. Moreover, data deserts may by tied to certain demographics, rather than just geographic locations. Already a lack of health data about certain minorities, such as the LGBT community, has contributed to unequal advances in healthcare outcomes.

There is no simple solution to this problem, but there are some short-term remedies. First, government-led data collection efforts should strive to obtain data about underrepresented and hard-to-reach populations to ensure all communities are represented in important datasets. In addition, when government agencies publish datasets, they should disclose any known shortcomings about the representativeness of the sample. Second, policymakers should insist that smart city projects are launched among diverse communities. One way to ensure this happens is for grant-making institutions to engage with local civic leaders so they understand how to integrate data-driven solutions into grant proposals. Finally, researchers need to identify where the data divide is a problem and evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions. While combating data poverty will not end inequality in America, building data-rich communities is an important step towards reducing these disparities.

This article originally appeared on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s website

Image: NASA

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