Pitfalls & Potential: Building Community Capacity to Use Data

The idea of data-driven decision-making and its potential benefits is hardly new, nor is awareness of its dystopian potential. What is new today is the explosion of data being collected as a result of conversion to digital systems and the technological capacity available to process and learn from that data. New industries are being built on these capabilities and existing ones are being transformed, including politics and government.

These changes are exciting. We have the opportunity to use data to drive positive change, increase transparency, and achieve greater accountability in ways that have never been possible in the past. We should seize that opportunity.

But these changes are also dangerous. As we grapple with the ways social networking data are used to manipulate politics and civic discourse, we are also plagued by cases of data-driven decision-making gone wrong, from predictive policing software that simply automates the system’s existing biases to databases of gang members or debtors that devastate people’s lives on the basis of demonstrably inaccurate information. Too often we run well ahead of our capacity to safely manage and use the data we collect.

This is not just a national issue. It is also very much a local one. As cities pursue dreams of becoming “smart;” as police are tempted by the promise of automating hard, dangerous or costly parts of their jobs; as cities implement new practices in performance management and accountability, both the good and the bad of this new data-rich world are happening right here in our own communities and it is here that we must grapple with them.

And make no mistake: data is a critical part of the issue, but this is about more than data. In fact, I believe the challenge we face today is nothing less than how to rebuild our democracy for the 21st century. And I believe that any meaningful effort to face that challenge necessarily starts locally.

Indeed, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville identifies “local government, that prolific seed of free institutions,” as a critical factor in the formation of the unique institutions of American democracy. It was then and continues to be today.

I should clarify just what is meant here by local government. Obviously the term includes city and county governments, but it is by no means limited to them. It includes the entire ecosystem of individual residents, community groups, governments, media, nonprofits, and businesses that collectively support and engage in local decision-making. A community where governance is limited just to the formal institutions of government is a poor community indeed.

I include the broader community for a very important reason. One of the important lessons learned over the last few decades of community organizing, civic engagement and civic tech is that achieving effective and equitable outcomes for all groups in our communities requires that we proactively and deeply involve all groups in the decision-making that yields those outcomes. That lesson is especially relevant to our ability to safely use data to achieve better and fairer outcomes for Asheville and for our neighbors throughout western North Carolina.

So what does that mean in concrete terms? Obviously that’s not a question I can answer fully in a brief essay, but I would suggest that our work centers on three primary efforts:

  1. Foster a local culture that values data in driving policy decisions and expects decision-makers to share that data and to engage with impacted communities around it.
  2. Build the capacity of community members to understand the value of data-driven decision-making and the dangers that we must guard against.
  3. Create tools and resources that empower community leaders to use data to inform policy and policy advocacy and establish baselines of agreed-upon authoritative data.

I will expand on this over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can find me on Twitter as @ejaxon.

Digital Services Architect at the City of Asheville, NC; Code for Asheville member & former Captain.

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