The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 5, 2018

How can local leaders harness technology and data to improve access to opportunity?

Technology is rapidly changing our society, from how we learn to where we live. It has also led to an explosion of new and nontraditional data and analytic techniques that can yield new business insights and shape public policy. But with the benefits of these disruptions come potential problems, as innovations risk leaving some people behind.

Understanding how technology and data could alter our lives and bridge societal divides is a critical first step in harnessing innovation for positive change. But putting that understanding into meaningful action is the next, and harder, step.

At a recent symposium convened by Capital One in Plano, Texas, practitioners, researchers, funders, business leaders, technologists, and other stakeholders discussed ways local leaders can harness technology and data to increase access to opportunity. This issue is particularly relevant in the Dallas metropolitan area, which is one of the country’s fastest-growing tech hubs yet still struggles with a lack of economic and racial inclusion.

Their insights focused on four themes about technology’s promise and pitfalls.

Recognize that technological change is inevitable

We are no longer speaking about technological change in the future tense; it is already having a profound impact on the way we work and learn. This impact is evident in our higher education system, as approximately 30 percent of higher education students take at least one online course.

“It’s not whether this will happen. This is the world, hybrid learning,” said Shayne Spaulding, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “How do you do it well, and how do you support educators and students in benefiting from this technology?”

Local policymakers and educators must embrace this hybrid learning model and consider its impacts on the quality of education and instruction, who has access to these courses, and what the outcomes are for students who pursue online learning. They also need to consider shifting student demographics, as nontraditional students (such as students who are older than 25, have children, or work full time while pursuing higher education) now make up 75 percent of postsecondary students.

This demographic shift will continue as the tech-literate and tech-native Generation Z enters higher education. It will be important to adapt learning models that combine their technological preferences with the instructional rigor needed to prepare them for the workforce.

Make sure technology’s benefits are equitably shared

As technology becomes more central to how we learn, how we work, and who we are as a society, we risk further marginalizing communities that do not have access to this technology. Job categories that are also more likely to be automated currently employ a disproportionate number of Latinos and African Americans.

“There hasn’t been shared prosperity,” said Jenny R. Yang, a strategic partner at Working Ideal and a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute. “With the advent of technology, we have the opportunity to think about what we can do differently to interrupt that cycle so technology is involved to lift up all communities.”

As workforce and societal needs shift, can we use the needs and investments of a more technology-driven economy to drive inclusion?

“We want investors to think about the financial returns and social returns. They’re always thinking about the financial returns. But we also want to be thoughtful about how they think about economic mobility, health, etc.,” said Tiffany Manuel, vice president for knowledge, impact, and strategy at Enterprise Community Partners. “And we’re using data to drive that conversation.”

Understand the benefits and limitations of data

As data are increasingly deployed to understand and solve problems, creators and users of data tools must ensure these tools do more good than harm. Some practitioners and institutions are leveraging technology and data to understand what is driving outcomes of interest. For example, the Budd Center at Southern Methodist University formed School Zone, a collective impact partnership of more than three dozen nonprofits and schools in West Dallas that leverages data to transform educational services and provide resources to students. 

As much as data can help solve problems, they can also reinforce deep-seated societal issues. The data we collect are products of agencies that exist in a historical context. Because structural racism is embedded in these programs, it is rare to find neutral data. For example, employment screening technology can reduce or eliminate hiring bias but only if the algorithms are carefully constructed and do not build in their own bias. As the use of data and algorithms increase, we must identify blind spots within the data to prevent misuse.

“It’s important to bring together different sources of data to understand a problem,” Spaulding said. “Each [data source] will allow you to answer specific questions, and each has limitations and gaps.”

Don’t just collect data; use it to spur positive change

More data are not always better, but data in isolation are not effective. To collect and use data that contribute to actionable insights (and doesn’t just add to the noise), we need to ensure they are relevant to the outcomes and people of interest.

One way to accomplish this goal is to discuss quantitative data results with the people on the ground who are seeing and are affected by these trends and by finding out if they agree with what the data are saying. By gaining their input, stakeholders can use data to better illuminate problems and help create coalitions to solve them.

“When you find disparities, what will you do about that? It’s that question we haven’t resolved,” Manuel said. “We measure and we talk about it, and people go home. What I’m hoping is that all the good work around measurement pushes us to action.”

Capital One, a funder of the Urban Institute and cohost of the Reimagine Communities Symposium, provided support for this work.

A panel at the Reimagine Communities Symposium in Plano, Texas. Photo by Grant Miller.

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