How Data Drives Impactful Public Policy

May 13, 2019

Every year, federal and state agencies spend trillions of dollars on public programs and policies in areas such as education, transportation, the environment, economic development, national security and defense, and healthcare.For these programs to be successful, they need to be transparent, accountable, and effective, which is best achieved with data analytics. One city that is successfully utilizing data analytics to help positively impact public policy is San Francisco.

For years, San Francisco struggled to manage the relationships between cyclists and automobiles. According to the city, there are around 30 deaths and 200 injuries per year as a result of collisions between cars and cyclists. Instead of coming up with a blanket policy, San Francisco enlisted the help of the Department of Public Health in cooperation with the Department of Transportation to develop a data-oriented approach to policy. They began by studying the problem closely: starting with what the causes of each collision were, followed by where they happened, then using that information to generate an injury-map that helps to visualize problem areas for cyclists and their automobile counterparts. During the analysis, it was found that 70 percent of accidents occur on just 12 percent of intersections – collecting this data allowed the city to target investment and engineering efforts to the areas where the impact would be maximized and most efficient. Through these efforts, the city is attempting to reach an ambitious goal: reducing deaths from these collisions to zero by 2024.

Another great example of data-driven policy at work involves Denise Turner Roth, now administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Earlier in her career, she researched how a breast cancer foundation could maximize the use of donated funds in research and treatment. Working with the GSA, she found that patients who had to travel long distances to their doctors or sites of treatment experienced a significantly lower rate of survival relative to those who lived within close proximity to their doctors or treatment centers. With this knowledge in hand, the foundation worked with their donors and local agencies to provide mobile mammogram units for at-risk women living in rural areas. Funds raised through donations are incredibly valuable and must be fully utilized to maximize impact and efficiency. Knowing how dollars can best be spent to drive the most progress and save countless lives was made possible through data analytics.

These two examples prove that a thoughtful, data-oriented approach to public policy can quite literally -- save lives. In addition, it leaves little room for politically motivated decisions, because the data is unfiltered by human preference or error. After collecting and analyzing the data, the results can be turned into compelling visuals to help policymakers understand the information and develop targeted solutions to seemingly complex problems that face society today. Data-driven decision making has started to trend among public sector managers, which to a great degree, will benefit the general public for untold years to come.