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Susan Kistler on the Democratization of Data

My name is Susan Kistler, AEA’s Executive Director, and I contribute each Saturday’s aea365 post. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of speaking about the democratization of data at the AEA/CDC Summer Evaluation Institute.  While a candidate, US President Barak Obama committed to putting government data online in universally accessible formats (see here). At a 2009 TED Talk, Tim Berners-Lee – the founder of the Internet – urged the audience to share “Raw Data Now” (see here). And just this year, statistician and activist Hans Rosling noted that times have changed and we need to get data to the public (see here). Taken together, the message is clear – we’re in a new age of data sharing. But what does this mean for evaluation?

Lessons Learned for Evaluators:

  • There are competing forces at work, with competing expectations and needs. As an example, the call for open data sharing can be in conflict with the Health Information Privacy Act (HIPPA) which protects individual privacy.
  • We may need to bring new people on our evaluation teams in order to create mechanisms for the public to access and use data in ways that promote utility and understanding. One strong example comes from the Kids Count Data Center, an initiative of the Annie E Casey Foundation that makes measures of child well being accessible to the public.
  • The US Government is making strides towards realizing the Obama vision for online data sharing via such initiatives as data.gov – but weaker progress in terms of making data available in universally accessible formats or in ways that are understandable not only to researchers but also to the general public.
  • Making data publicly available can result in intriguing use such as the recent competition from The Sunlight Foundation that provided a $5,000 prize from the US Department of Health and Human Services for “innovative applications that improve the public’s understanding of community health performance” based on a DHHS dataset. Type your US postal code into the winner “County Sin Rankings” for a potentially surprising look at your locale.
  • Interactive interfaces and tools that allow the general public to analyze data and create a near-infinite number of data visualizations, can produce results with subtleties that may not be apparent to the general consumer. Take a look at these two maps of infant mortality rates from the New York Times Data Visualization Lab, comparing rates from 1960 and 2004 in selected countries. You’ll need to look carefully at the scales to see the considerable difference.

Rad Resource: This downloadable session handout provides links to 20 tools for making data publicly accessible – from examples of data in use to data repositories to free tools for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data.

The above opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Evaluation Association.

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