Turning Data Into Action
“Data matters now more than ever, particularly with the amount of information available on the internet,” said Lamar Gardere, executive director of The Data Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gathering facts about the southeast Louisiana region and presenting them in accessible, useful formats.
Gardere didn’t point out how much misinformation is also available on the internet, but he did add that “often that information turns out to be anecdotes, which do not provide a good basis for decision-making.”
This is the underlying purpose of The Data Center’s work: “Good data leads to better decision-making that improves our region’s prosperity overall. It helps design solutions that improve life.”
Data may seem like a dry subject to many people, but not Gardere and his team. “What is fascinating about data is its explanatory power,” said Gardere. “You may have issues and problems that seem intractable, but once you apply data to them, it becomes much more clear what is happening and why it’s happening. You have a much greater ability to understand what is going on and to develop solutions.”
If this still sounds like an academic exercise, consider how work by The Data Center helped clarify the ways the coronavirus was impacting the local population, redirect resources and significantly reduce infections.
“We had a lot of early deaths from COVID, and a high rate of deaths,” recalled Gardere. “We were able to identify early on that underlying health conditions made you more vulnerable, but that did not explain disparities in deaths for Black people and White people. It was a case of an easy answer that people were accepting, but the data did not support it.”
The Data Center dug more deeply into the situation. “We found that circumstances created longer and more exposure for Black people than White people. This included housing and working conditions. People in certain industries were more exposed. People at certain income levels simply had to go to work. People living in multi-generational and more dense households had greater exposure with fewer opportunities to quarantine.”
The data made clear that each of these circumstances applied more frequently to Black people, particularly those working in the lower tiers of industries like hospitality or transportation, and the results were predictable. “You had to go to your job, you had a greater chance of being exposed, then you came home and exposed your family.”
This expanded understanding helped city leaders understand how the virus was spreading, which in turn led to more focused testing efforts and other mitigations. Subsequently, New Orleans saw a significant drop in the rate of infections and deaths.
“We saved lives,” Gardere stated firmly.
Getting accurate data, in sufficient quantities to draw accurate conclusions, is a challenge that the age of information (and misinformation) has made greater. Gardere cited people’s increasing concerns about privacy and unwillingness to share personal information as major obstacles. Surveys have to be designed very carefully, not only to get the necessary information but also to avoid creating any bias in the answers. And the smaller the population or geography being surveyed, the bigger the challenge.
To address this, The Data Center works with a variety of partners. “You can do some data collection on your own,” noted Gardere, “but it is more sustainable when you can convince other organizations, like universities or governments, to do this as well.”
The Data Center advocates for state and national government agencies to do widespread data collection at local levels. “This ensures the use of the same methodology in each location,” explained Gardere. “It’s very useful to have comparisons – is New Orleans alone in facing this issue, or do other cities also have this problem?”
Despite the challenges, Gardere feels that “the future of data is bright. There is so much more data bring produced now. New technologies bring in more data, and more ways to use it. Increased computing power improves analysis of the data. There is more interest in digging into certain issues to find solutions, therefore there is a call for more data.”
As always, the ultimate objective remains the same: “The more we understand why and how systems impact individual behaviors and outcomes, the more this will lead to better decision-making, and better solutions for our communities.”