Report: Data Divide Is the Next Horizon

August 26, 2022 by Madeline Hughes
Report: Data Divide Is the Next Horizon
Gillian Diebold, a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation.

WASHINGTON — Americans’ online lives are growing at a rapid pace, especially as everyday needs like health care and education can be met more easily through the internet.

Despite government spending to the tune of $65 billion to ensure equal and safe access to the internet, the digital divide remains. And there’s an unseen aspect that’s part of the same issue: data.

That’s why Gillian Diebold, a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, recently released a 49-page report about closing that data gap to create more equity.

“As we’re growing the data economy, individuals and communities who lack high-quality data are at risk of falling behind,” Diebold said in an interview Thursday.

Data provides insight into who is more susceptible to environmental risks like wildfires, floods and other natural disasters. It can also pinpoint environmental hazards like air pollution or chemical waste.

It can also help doctors diagnose patients, and teachers reach students better.

Diebold recalled one particular example of inequitable data collection: the 2021 oil refinery explosion in Philadelphia. That June day still registers as one of the city’s cleanest air days because air quality centers were not in the poorer part of the city where the explosion occurred, she said.

If residents now experiencing health consequences from that explosion had air quality data from that day and the following days, they could be greater “advocates [for themselves] and tell their own story of what they’re experiencing,” Diebold said.

The Center for Data Innovation first identified this gap in 2014. It’s time to take a closer look at it, she said.

“We’re really reaching a pretty good percentage of Americans connected to broadband in the U.S., [but] obviously there’s still room for growth, and there’s key groups — particularly Native Americans — who need access. But overall we’re reaching a pretty good level of connectivity,” Diebold said. “And so it’s time to start thinking about the next challenge.”

The data divide encompasses a vast array of information and there’s a spectrum of how much is collected, Diebold writes in her report. It’s also not as tangible as electricity, the need for roads or broadband, she said.

However, data is instrumental to solving large issues, from the environment to health care to education, she said. That’s where Diebold challenges government officials to think about what they need to collect for the sake of equity.

That comes in terms of funding to buy the technology to collect necessary data, she writes.

“From smart wearable devices to local environmental sensors, the use of data-driven technology has skyrocketed in recent years as policymakers recognize the value in evidence-based decision-making,” Diebold writes.

Government officials will also need to decide what types of data are the most important to collect, she said.

She’s continuing with this work by bringing government and tech officials along with advocates to discuss how to confront these inadequacies. 

“The data economy and data driven innovation present a powerful opportunity to transform society for the better, but only if data collection and use are inclusive. Policymakers should work to ensure that all individuals and communities have access to high-quality data,” Diebold writes.

Madeline can be reached at [email protected] and @MadelineHughes

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