Beyond Randomized Controlled Trials

Iqbal Dhaliwal, John Floretta & Sam Friedlander at SSIR: “…In its post-Nobel phase, one of J-PAL’s priorities is to unleash the treasure troves of big digital data in the hands of governments, nonprofits, and private firms. Primary data collection is by far the most time-, money-, and labor-intensive component of the vast majority of experiments that evaluate social policies. Randomized evaluations have been constrained by simple numbers: Some questions are just too big or expensive to answer. Leveraging administrative data has the potential to dramatically expand the types of questions we can ask and the experiments we can run, as well as implement quicker, less expensive, larger, and more reliable RCTs, an invaluable opportunity to scale up evidence-informed policymaking massively without dramatically increasing evaluation budgets.

Although administrative data hasn’t always been of the highest quality, recent advances have significantly increased the reliability and accuracy of GPS coordinates, biometrics, and digital methods of collection. But despite good intentions, many implementers—governments, businesses, and big NGOs—aren’t currently using the data they already collect on program participants and outcomes to improve anti-poverty programs and policies. This may be because they aren’t aware of its potential, don’t have the in-house technical capacity necessary to create use and privacy guidelines or analyze the data, or don’t have established partnerships with researchers who can collaborate to design innovative programs and run rigorous experiments to determine which are the most impactful. 

At J-PAL, we are leveraging this opportunity through a new global research initiative we are calling the “Innovations in Data and Experiments for Action” Initiative (IDEA). IDEA supports implementers to make their administrative data accessible, analyze it to improve decision-making, and partner with researchers in using this data to design innovative programs, evaluate impact through RCTs, and scale up successful ideas. IDEA will also build the capacity of governments and NGOs to conduct these types of activities with their own data in the future….(More)”.