Replicating the Justice Data Lab in the USA: Key Considerations

Blog by Tracey Gyateng and Tris Lumley: “Since 2011, NPC has researched, supported and advocated for the development of impact-focussed Data Labs in the UK. The goal has been to unlock government administrative data so that organisations (primarily nonprofits) who provide a social service can understand the impact of their services on the people who use them.

So far, one of these Data Labs has been developed to measure re-offending outcomes- the Justice Data Lab-, and others are currently being piloted for employment and education. Given our seven years of work in this area, we at NPC have decided to reflect on the key factors needed to create a Data Lab with our report: How to Create an Impact Data Lab. This blog outlines these factors, examines whether they are present in the USA, and asks what the next steps should be — drawing on the research undertaken with the Governance Lab….Below we examine the key factors and to what extent they appear to be present within the USA.

Environment: A broad culture that supports impact measurement. Similar to the UK, nonprofits in the USA are increasingly measuring the impact they have had on the participants of their service and sharing the difficulties of undertaking robust, high quality evaluations.

Data: Individual person-level administrative data. A key difference between the two countries is that, in the USA, personal data on social services tends to be held at a local, rather than central level. In the UK social services data such as reoffending, education and employment are collated into a central database. In the USA, the federal government has limited centrally collated personal data, instead this data can be found at state/city level….

A leading advocate: A Data Lab project team, and strong networks. Data Labs do not manifest by themselves. They requires a lead agency to campaign with, and on behalf of, nonprofits to set out a persuasive case for their development. In the USA, we have developed a partnership with the Governance Lab to seek out opportunities where Data Labs can be established but given the size of the country, there is scope for further collaborations/ and or advocates to be identified and supported.

Customers: Identifiable organisations that would use the Data Lab. Initial discussions with several US nonprofits and academia indicate support for a Data Lab in their context. Broad consultation based on an agreed region and outcome(s) will be needed to fully assess the potential customer base.

Data owners: Engaged civil servants. Generating buy-in and persuading various stakeholders including data owners, analysts and politicians is a critical part of setting up a data lab. While the exact profiles of the right people to approach can only be assessed once a region and outcome(s) of interest have been chosen, there are encouraging signs, such as the passing of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Making Act of 2017 in the house of representatives which, among other things, mandates the appointment of “Chief Evaluation Officers” in government departments- suggesting that there is bipartisan support for increased data-driven policy evaluation.

Legal and ethical governance: A legal framework for sharing data. In the UK, all personal data is subject to data protection legislation, which provides standardised governance for how personal data can be processed across the country and within the European Union. A universal data protection framework does not exist within the USA, therefore data sharing agreements between customers and government data-owners will need to be designed for the purposes of Data Labs, unless there are existing agreements that enable data sharing for research purposes. This will need to be investigated at the state/city level of a desired Data Lab.

Funding: Resource and support for driving the set-up of the Data Lab. Most of our policy lab case studies were funded by a mixture of philanthropy and government grants. It is expected that a similar mixed funding model will need to be created to establish Data Labs. One alternative is the model adopted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), which was created by the Washington State Legislature and is funded on a project basis, primarily by the state. Additionally funding will be needed to enable advocates of a Data Lab to campaign for the service….(More)”.