Our future is still human, but it needs data

Alicia Phillips Mandaville and Dmitry Kachaev — Amida Technology Solutions

For data people, we spend a lot of time thinking about the human dimension of the world’s most complex challenges. It’s clear that some have scientific or technical solutions, like stemming the spread of the Zika virus or reducing carbon emissions. But other crises are creatures of our own human making — like the Syrian refugee crisis, deeply entrenched economic inequality, or extremist networks — and they require human agency and judgment to solve.

In this context, there’s an unfair dichotomy between the problems that people assume can benefit from data or decision making tools, and those labeled as too subjective to bring data to bear. Ironically, leaders who carry responsibility for confronting the most complicated side of our humanity are sometimes unable or unwilling to turn to the very decision support tools that their colleagues in market analysis or the scientific research community rely on heavily.

In our collective years working with senior U.S. government, city, and non-profit leadership teams, we’ve heard dozens of individual leaders begin decision making conversations by insisting that “data can’t be the single determinant” for how to approach social and economic development issues. That has always been frustrating — because the implied complaint is a straw man.

Human problems require human agency to solve. So why this reaction? Why does it seem we social science and community development types are afraid to admit that maybe the data could actually be extraordinarily useful? There are two intertwined reasons and understanding them is part of addressing them.

First, data can be alienating, and sometimes tangibly so. By its very nature, a “data set” captures a defined set of information about a specific set of topics or people. For those of us working with disadvantaged groups, marginalized geographies, or in low income environments, we know all too well that the data which is most accessible often omits the people or characteristics we are most focused on: medical trials with samples that under-represent black women, household surveys that don’t break up income by gender, or political polls that skip urban residences without land lines.

That’s frustrating because we all know what it feels like to be omitted from a data set that we care about. It’s why some of us feel excluded by the lack of a Latino superhero, a Barbie with freckles, or a prime-time TV show whose star has an Alabama accent. When you aren’t included you feel left out. And when the issue you care about is too frequently left out of the data, it’s much easier to stop believing that data can help you than is to look for tools that surface the information you need.

That’s the second reason data still languishes next to the board room for many public service and philanthropic organizations: the dearth of tools actually tailored to the needs of this community. While “big data” has become sexy, and everyone has read a story about how marketing professionals or Google Analytics can turn those raw materials into an actionable conclusion about how to sell you things, the reality is that the usability of data isn’t just about the data itself. If data is the new raw material of the future, then the real challenge is whether or not we have tools that make the data accessible to the people who need it, when they need it.

If you’re trying to decide the best way to spend scarce grant money to combat human trafficking, to follow the non-income aspects of community development projects, or to make comparative statements about gender equality in two different countries, you need data the same way you need expert opinions.

That’s why the solution lies in honest realization that if the philanthropic and public service community wants to start bringing data to bear in a form that matters — in the moments that matter — we aren’t going to just re-configure some data tool originally designed for high volume sales, or for scientific research. We need assets and platforms that acknowledge the differences between measuring what is countable (how many kids are at a school) and assessing the outcomes that you need a human to judge (how many of those kids are learning). For example, we know the U.S. census underestimates, and therefore underserves, disadvantaged portions of the population when social norms make them avoid participating in it. Let’s stop pretending that will right itself with existing tools.

Humanity is more art than science, but that’s not inconsistent with the idea that we should bring knowledge to bear on our most pressing human challenges. In the words of former GSA Administrator and longtime public servant Dan Tangherlini, “optimism without data is really just an emotion.” It’s time we recognize that while data can never replace the judgment of leadership, data can help those same leaders find a path to progress.

Alicia Phillips Mandaville is Vice President at Amida Technology Solutions where she serves as part of the team managing Indaba, Amida’s open source knowledge collaboration platform for international development professionals. She is the former Chief Strategy Officer at the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Dmitry Kachaev is a co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Amida Technology Solutions where he manages development of the Data Reconciliation Engine and Indaba open source products in the health and international development sectors. He was a member of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows. Prior to that he founded and led the technology innovation lab for the District of Columbia.