Stranded in a Data Desert?

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by Jeremy Loudenback

For more than 15 years, researchers having been drawing attention to a digital divide, the idea that access to digital technologies is not equally available to all. But now some are suggesting that another persistent gap is emerging: the data divide.

The Rise of Data Poverty in America,” a new brief released by the Center for Data Innovation, provides an overview of the implications related to which populations have data collected about them. The issue is important in an increasingly data-driven world; communities that are not included in intensive data-collection efforts may not reap the benefits of increased attention and resources from policymakers. From the results of Census counts to information collected via apps, data will be an even more fundamental tool in the political decision-making process.

Author Daniel Castro suggests that the term “data desert” could be used to describe areas where certain groups do not have data regularly collected about them. With the increasing use of technology to improve government services, residents who live in areas of data poverty could be potentially missing out on improved health services, better educational opportunities, and increased civic engagement.

If certain groups are routinely excluded from data sets, their problems may be overlooked and their communities held back in spite of progress elsewhere. To ensure that all individuals have access to the vast benefits offered by data-driven innovation and that no group is systemically disadvantaged, policymakers should pursue efforts to eradicate data poverty and close the data divide.

What can policymakers and government officials do to ensure that a growing data divide does not emerge? Castro offers a few broad recommendations to keep in mind:

  •  Continue government data collection programs that focus on hard- to-reach populations
  •  Ensure that funding programs aimed at closing the digital divide consider the impact on data poverty
  •  Ensure that digital literacy programs help individuals understand data-producing technologies, such as social media and the Internet of Things
  •  Encourage civic leaders in low-income neighborhoods to understand the benefits of data and know how to integrate technology solutions into grant proposals

To read more, check out the brief here.


One thought on “Stranded in a Data Desert?

  1. Great article. In South LA we have a tenuous relationship with this concept. On one hand, we don’t like it when people come in to “study us” and collect data that way. On the other hand, we want and appreciate services that our tailored to our specific needs. A good middle ground is found when institutions like USC can actually build network nodes out into other communities. Institutionalizing those bonds, instead of coming in and out as research needs arise, should be the goal. This is one reason why Carl Morgan, Chair of the Planning and Land Use Committee for the Empowerment Congress West neighborhood council (and a USC alum), is pushing the Bill Elkins Center for Design, Planning and Community Development. The hope is that it can serve as a permanent resource for students from the various colleges in the area to study the needs of the South LA area. And in this way, the permanence can help reduce some of the skepticism from local residents because it would be a stable presence in the community. I think it’s a great idea. Hopefully it can also be a great resource for collecting data about South LA residents.

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