Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Gone Dry: An Update on the Debate Over Public Data

By Evan Robertson, Project Associate.

At a time when massive amounts of information are readily at our finger tips, it is difficult to fathom that – at the same time – we are also slowly losing access to local information. The slow demise of local information is being pressured by two primary sources: the decline of local news media and the continued pressure via Congress to hamstring the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet again, Congress has entered a new bill into the house called the “Census Reform Act of 2013.” Everyone likes reform, I’d particularly enjoy it if the Census reformed its web-based interface…but that’s another blog altogether. The first line of the bill should give you a clue that by reform they mean “abolish”: “To repeal the authority to conduct certain censuses, and for other purposes.” The bill will essentially eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS) as well as the Census of Governments, the Economic Census, and any Census related to Agriculture. This is after the house voted to defund the American Community Survey. Ellen Cutter, our Director of Research, wrote a fantastic call to arms regarding the vote as well as the highlighted the importance of the ACS. The current bill sits in committee while the vote to defund the American Community Survey was defeated (thankfully) by the Senate. But, having just experienced Big Data Week Atlanta 2013, it raised a particularly interesting question: are we losing access to local information?

Full disclosure: I don’t intend to answer this question.

My cause for concern is twofold: local news media outlets are struggling across the country and budgetary pressures are forcing our politicians to question the value of local, timely data. The decline of the local news media industry is well documented with 2009 being dubbed “The Year The Newspaper Died.” If you are a more visual person, this site run by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s social media editor offers a good grasp of the number of newspapers closed in recent years. Admittedly, a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press study found that only 43 percent of Americans say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” So, it is unclear whether we actually care about the loss. But, without access to timely information in some centralized form, it is difficult to gain information regarding things that potentially impact your local area. That new retail development going into your neighborhood? With a little more information, you might find out you don’t want it in your community.

On the other side of the equation is the continued fight over the American Community Survey (ACS). While it doesn’t help that the U.S. Census Bureau is currently without a Director, this battle will continue to the foreseeable future. Qualms over the American Community Survey range from government intrusion to security. Some of the concerns are understandable; Jeff Duncan’s – the bill’s sponsor – home state of South Carolina was victim to the nation’s largest state agency hacking crime. All told, over 4 million taxpayer social security numbers and 387,000 credit/debit cards were stolen. Security aside, the other complaint concerns the compulsory nature of the survey and the associated fine (up to $5,000) as well as the frequent accompanying phone calls that survey respondents receive. Speaking from my personal experience with the survey (my parents were given an ACS survey in 2012), the U.S. Census Bureau and we in the economic development profession could do a better job informing the public about the importance of the ACS, what its data is used for, and why the compulsory fine is much needed. I’d be surprised if most Americans would question the value of the American Community Survey if they realized that it helps inform decisions regarding road/public transit construction, school location, and private investment (there is a reason that grocery store is located on that particular corner, in that particular neighborhood) among others. The use of the data is all encompassing, I am constantly surprised were it pops up.

Devil’s advocate: let’s say the American Community Survey does go the way of the Dodo and local news media continue their downward spiral, is there anything that can replace it? In terms of news media, there is a strong argument for informed and passionate community leaders/bloggers rising up to meet the challenge. As a recent Twitter adopter, I am constantly amazed at its ability to disseminate information quickly and in an easily digestible format. While social media could serve as a potential replacement for journalism, it would require very passionate people with a lot of time on their hands to lead the investigation and disseminating of the information they collect. Depending on the community size, it could easily escalate into a full-time gig.

A replacement for the American Community Survey is less clear. With the absence of a national survey, it would fall upon state and local governments (or private companies who will give you access for a fee) to collect the data they need to make informed public investment decisions. This would likely be a mess. Without common standards, each state could potentially form their own methodologies (see: dropout rates in years past) and, thus, data would be hard to compare across states and the nation. More likely, in the harsh state budgetary environment, it’s easy to see states forgoing data collection altogether. On a long enough time frame, the rise of inexpensive sensors and proliferating use of GPS phones will reshape the way we collect and view public data. Local governments could obtain more fine-grain, real-time information on daily migration patterns, commute times, population, economic activity, and all the other things that the American Community Survey currently tracks. But this is far, far into the future.

As public information stakeholders, it’s up to us to ensure that we retain access to vital sources of public information. It is also up to us to use this public information in neat ways that inspire public debate and lead to informed public investment decisions. And, on the off chance you run into an ACS skeptic, just tell them that Google, Microsoft, Target, Wal-Mart, Comcast, AT&T, and Visa have way more intimate information on you as a person than the federal government. That smart phone they’re holding has been keeping tabs on their location since it was turned on; the apps it connects to also know where they’ve been. With access to their Google searches alone, medical marketers can probably make a good, educated guess at their medical history which is why they always see online ads that hit startlingly close to home. Why we are comfortable surrendering extremely private information to companies only interested in profit and less private information to our government is beyond me.