Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

NYC Community Response team

Helping local leaders reach the most vulnerable

It is popular these days to boil our vast universe of policy choices down into a single, binary choice: either you’re for public health, or you’re for economic recovery. Obviously, this is a false choice. Not only should we do both, we literally have to, since physically sick people don’t form the basis of a healthy economy and an unhealthy economy makes people physically sick.

In planning for the future, it may be more helpful to think in terms of a spectrum. When it comes to public health and the economy, policymakers face a dizzying number of decisions. The better the data and evidence available to them, the better those decisions will be for tens of millions of Americans who need help. 

On the public health side, we see every day how experts can use high-res, real-time data to determine who’s at risk and how to protect them. On the economic recovery side, though, this kind of information simply doesn’t exist. The data in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent “employment situation,” for example, was three weeks old when it came out (and it’s been out for five weeks), and the smallest possible subdivision of analysis was into the 50 states. 

One of our grantees, Opportunity Insights, is stepping into this breach by building a fully anonymized data hub called the OI Economic Tracker. This easy-to-use, publicly accessible web platform launches today. The data hub is already able to answer important questions about employment, income, and consumer spending at the county level with just a few days’ lag time. By mid-summer, we hope it will provide data about an even wider range of issues that is disaggregated by race and gender and as granular as the more than 40,000 zip codes in the United States.

Our strategy is about empowering leaders in communities around the United States with tools to help them fight poverty.

Ryan Rippel

Director, U.S. Economic Mobility and Opportunity

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This ability to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable is the reason we’re so excited about the data hub. There’s a lot of evidence that the crisis is exacerbating the economic inequality that was already tearing at the moral and social fabric of our country before anyone had ever heard of coronavirus. Our job as a foundation is to help communities tackle their challenges in a specific and strategic way.  

Three years ago, we created our U.S. Economic Mobility and Opportunity strategy to empower leaders in communities around the United States with tools to help them fight poverty. With eight other partners, we funded Opportunity Insights to create the Opportunity Atlas, which helps communities confront inequality and take action to support their most vulnerable members. We hope the OI Economic Tracker does the same for the duration of the economic crisis. That’s why, in addition to getting the platform up and running, we are helping decision-makers across the country use this information as they navigate from one critical decision to the next in the weeks and months to come.

One reason it’s hard to produce rich economic data quickly is that it’s held separately by thousands of private companies—the banks where we save, the credit card companies that help us spend, the payroll companies that process our paychecks, the list goes on and on. The big breakthrough with the OI Economic Tracker is that hundreds of companies have agreed to make some aggregated data public to help accelerate the recovery.  

There has never  been a data set quite like this. Because this effort is unprecedented, Opportunity Insights is treating data privacy and security issues with extraordinary caution. In addition to its own rigorous protocol, it is bound by specific agreements with each data partner. All the OI Economic Tracker data is de-identified, and to be clear, Opportunity Insights’ partners, including the Gates Foundation, have no more access to the data than you do when you navigate to the platform.   

Thanks to these data partnerships, the data is uniquely accurate, detailed, and fast—and therefore uniquely valuable in the work that lies ahead. Consider the difference between state-wide data that is eight weeks old and county-level data that is four or five days old. If you’re a public official looking to the data for signals about whether a given intervention is working or not, you don’t want to wait eight weeks for numbers that may reveal that you just wasted six weeks. Especially in this constantly evolving context, the sooner you know, the sooner you can double down, change course, or something in between. 

Let’s say you’re an elected official in St. Louis, where I live. The state-level data, no matter how fast you get it, just isn’t going to tell you what you need to know to solve the economic problems your constituents are having. You can’t use numbers that reflect the economic performance of Kansas City, or rural Northeast Missouri, to understand what is happening in your city. Or, once the platform gets to the zip code level, in the most vulnerable communities within your city. 

The nation’s goal must be to speed recovery everywhere while targeting resources immediately to make sure that the country comes out of this crisis more equal, not less. It will be a lot easier for thousands of local officials to meet that goal if, instead of guessing how to do it, they have the resources to follow where the evidence leads.

About the Author

Ryan Rippel
Ryan Rippel is the Director of U.S. Economic Mobility and Opportunity at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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