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OPINION: America needs a new data culture to address systemic racism

Thursday, 11 March 2021 16:03 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A woman kisses a child as they stand on a street painted with the names of people killed by police near the site of the arrest of George Floyd, who died while in police custody, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. June 14, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Miller

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Disaggregating data is the difference between knowing income disparity between white residents of a certain zip code, and their Black neighbors one Census tract over

Michael McAfee is President and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity. Adam Selipsky is President and CEO of Tableau, the world’s leading analytics platform.

We don’t need data to tell us that racism exists. Many people of color experience it every day. It is evident in the leadership in this country—in politics and business. It is clear with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, and in the pain, grief, and calls for justice from the Black community. Dismantling systemic racism requires deliberate, targeted and transformative action.

This is where data can play a critical role. Data gives shape to a problem, and can point to equitable solutions that improve outcomes for people facing the burdens of structural racism. To be effective in addressing issues of racial justice, more and better data is imperative.

The U.S. is nowhere near producing this deep, nuanced and transformative data—and sharing it with the public in a way that is accessible and understandable. When the government collects data, either at the state or federal level, it is often incomplete, disjointed, or in messy spreadsheets, and isn’t disaggregated. However, we are at an inflection point. President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on advancing racial equity specifically called out the lack of federal disaggregated data, and encouraged an effort for improvement.

Disaggregating data is the difference between knowing the median income of a metro area, and being able to drill down and see the disparity in income between white residents of a certain zip code, and their Black neighbors one Census tract over. For this data to be effective, it needs to be as fine-grained as possible. It needs to show the critical aspects of people’s lives, from their education levels to their household size to their specific health risks.

We must embrace a new culture of data—one that reveals the whole truth of the struggles and strengths of individuals and communities, and empowers community leaders and policymakers to open their eyes and take action. To reach the full potential of this moment, we have to ensure that people are able to easily access, understand, and use this data for advancing racial equity.

In an effort to be a part of the solution, the Tableau Foundation recently launched the Racial Equity Data Hub to bring data and critical resources into one place and connect organizations and advocates with relevant data, analyses, and tools. Our social research institute, PolicyLink, is a cornerstone partner on the project.

Through the National Equity Atlas and Racial Equity Index, PolicyLink has been working for years to make critical data more available and actionable for a broad audience. PolicyLink developed these tools with the USC Equity Research Institute to measure and understand inequities across the country. They show an in-depth, easily comprehensible picture of which groups are being excluded from prosperity, by how much, and as a result, which policy levers could most effectively be pulled to create change.

Part of the power in these tools is how the data is presented. Rather than just providing a long list of statistics, or an enormous file that only those with a data science degree would have the fortitude to wade through, the team made the conscious choice to present it visually, in interactive dashboards and charts that anyone can access and use.

In June 2020, the National Equity Atlas began estimating eviction risk at the county level amidst the pandemic. In the San Francisco Bay Area's Contra Costa County, they found that 12,000 renter households would be at imminent risk of eviction if the county’s eviction moratorium expired, with more waves of evictions close behind. This data helped advocates successfully urge the Board of Supervisors to extend their local moratorium and rent freeze. More recently, the team worked with policymakers using data that shows the magnitude of rent burden faced primarily by low-wage workers of color in California so they can design protections that meet people’s needs.

To make real progress against structural racism and inequity in the U.S., and to build a more just and equitable society, a new approach to data is required. This data can’t just be for show—it can’t just serve topline reports and fuel after-the-fact understanding. It needs to be robust, actionable, and up-to-the minute so we can begin to understand what people’s needs are now, in every community, on every block, and make progress toward addressing them.

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