Some might say we are in an era of data obsession. We’ve got big data, open data, performance data and outcome versus input/output data. There are data-filled charts, graphs, tables, story maps and infographics galore. When I searched for “ways to present data,” Google listed the top “38 best tools for data visualization,” and it included everything from A to Z.—or, in this case—from a computational knowledge engine like WolframAlpha to ZingChart, which offered more than 100 chart types to fit all your data.
Data is a lot of things these days, but it’s still generally accepted that most data either derives from or ends with understanding numerical information. In government, the numbers form the basis for budgeting, annual appropriations, reconciliations and bond ratings. It’s easy to get buried in a sea of millions, billions or trillions—whopping big numbers that sadly start to lose meaning in their massiveness.
But here’s the key. Those numbers must never lose meaning. Further, to achieve the best governing solutions that impact real lives, it’s imperative to balance quantitative and qualitative data resulting in what some are now calling “thick data.”
If one attaches the lives impacted behind the millions and billions, blasé charts suddenly deliver new urgency or meaning. A government’s budget is, after all, the clearest articulation of a community’s priorities and values in reaching the common good, and far more reliable than all the political rhetoric that surrounds it. Making that connection, though, to real people and day-to-day impact can be hard.
At Living Cities our mission and mantra helps keep the connection front-and-center; we’re building a new urban practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people, faster. We believe a city will be better equipped if it is data-driven—a quality and capacity that should sit firmly alongside and be informed by other characteristics like being resident-involved and race-informed. It’s not data for data’s sake. Rather, it brings objectivity. Hard facts and figures, after all, can keep a community focused on real progress, and demonstrate clearly when you’re headed in the wrong direction.
In addition to keeping outcome data fully transparent, cities should use every tool and all the technologies at their disposal to gather sound information that leads to tangible progress. And the best cities will never lose a line-of-sight on how decisions around data impact the well-being of their residents (i.e., real people).
For example, a new book, The Financial Diaries, highlights the power of digging below the two-dimensional surface of financial data. In it, authors Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider “challenge popular assumptions about how Americans, earn, spend, borrow and save,” and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. By spending a year to attach real-time, real-life stories to financial data—data that is often too easily glossed over in chart upon chart documenting income inequality—they unearthed a powerful discovery. They identified a third and often overlooked inequality in their study: the “unequal ability for stability.”
It was data that revealed the wild and unpredictable waves of cash flow and debt that occurred in a 12-month period for many of their 235 participants. But it’s the interpersonal interactions and understanding of human coping strategies that can lead us to solutions.
This idea reminds me of an all-day conference sponsored by municipal software giant, Socrata—a firm whose mission, by the way, is “unleashing the power of government data to improve society.” The conference’s MC proclaimed at the end of the day, “Wasn’t it remarkable that a room of true data geeks talked far more about the people behind the numbers than digits and data throughout the day.” Testament to a room full of government employees never forgetting the real reason they do what they do, all in service to the public.
So, the next time you’re challenged with that stretch target of a 10% increase in the number of formerly incarcerated men or women getting a steady job, or permanently moving an ambitious percentage of local residents above the poverty line in the next month, take time to attach the real-life impacts for the people undergirding that line on a graph, and take heart in moving it in the right direction.
Follow us on Twitter @Living_Cities for coverage of the 3rd Annual Summit on Government Performance & Innovation, which highlights new policy perspectives and practical implementation strategies around the groundbreaking Equipt to Innovate framework.