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Federal Statistical System, Transparency Camp West

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Federal Statistical System, Transparency Camp West

  1. 1. evidence-based policy Peter Orszag is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. It is here that the Chief Statistician of the United States, Katherine Wallman, works. Orszag has been a prominent voice in the Healthcare Reform debate, something he connects to 'evidence-based policy'. Surprisingly, Orszag's evidence for Healthcare Reform comes from a Dartmouth University research center (called ATLAS), not the Federal Statistical System, which Wallman oversees. The Federal Statistical System is compromised of dozens of agencies that operate with varying degrees of independence with Cabinet departments. The System faces considerable cultural & technical challenges in meeting the Obama Administration's goals for transparency.
  2. 2. 0.02% of the Federal Budget is for Statistics The annual cost to taxpayers for Government Statistics is less than $25, probably closer to $10 In addition to Healthcare, critical areas like Climate Change, Education, and Immigration (which is also Homeland Security) need better statistics. Things are looking up to some degree. The 2010 Census had its funding raised by $1B to $15B. Other statistical agencies have seen their budgets increase or stabilize. Yet Congressional Hearings into how to improve the Federal Statistical System started two weeks ago (see Yes, Federal Statistics can be improved, but it also important to mention that Federal Statistics have been grossly underfunded.
  3. 3. “The return on Federal investment in statistics is almost infinite.” -Andrew Reamer, Brookings Institute Andrew Reamer is the one person I've come across in a Washington DC think-tank whose focus is the Federal Statistical System. His observation is based on the fact that you cannot put a pricetag on crucial information at a critical time.
  4. 4. Stories of Federal Statistics ● World War II ● Bureau of Economic Analysis, FY2007 ● 2010 American Community Survey In WW2 the United States had detailed information about the nation's industrial capacity. Records that were at least as detailed as Germany's, and far better than Japan's. Given how the volume of material exceeded those other nations, the country's statistical services certainly helped, rather than hurt the War effort. There was a budget showdown for FY2007. Congress approved a budget that exceeded the President's by a few hundred million dollars. Rather than risk a veto, Congress opted to cut that money from its budget. The Bureau of Economic Analysis took a 5% hit from what was supposed to be $80 million. Among the programs that BEA sacrificed were measures of specific industries on US Metro regions. So now when the auto industry needs bailing out, there are no recent numbers on which to gauge the auto industry's impact on Metro Detroit. The American Community Survey (ACS) replaced the Decennial Census Long Form as the main provider of detailed demographic information. The last Long Form sampled ~17% of Americans. The current ACS currently get 10-12%, not enough for reliable conclusions at the neighborhood level. It's a concern that press and politicians will either base decisions on the potentially faulty information or feel misrepresented by the inaccuracy.
  5. 5. scientifically grounded Kenneth Prewitt was the Director of 2000 Census, and currently consults for the Census Bureau. During the recent Congressional Hearing he expressed strong support for making the Census Bureau an independent agency, separate from the Department of Commerce where it currently resides. He is also an advocate for boosting the Census Bureau and Federal Statistical System's scientific credentials, referring to these social scientists & statisticians as Government science's step-children. Prewitt also sees a payoff from a more scientific Census Bureau, which is improving acquisition/use of redundant and complimentary information from sources like administrative records & government transactions (he calls it 'swipe data'), a challenge worth undertaking.
  6. 6. How do government data help to produce important science today? Today's science is more computational and data-driven. It makes sense that the government has a role to play, but what? And if the Federal Statistical System seeks to become 'more scientific', where can it look for examples that can provide a guide in terms of process? The example I have comes from conservation biology, and it is just one of what are probably many cases worth considering.
  7. 7. Landscape Ecology, Circuitscape In general, conservation science depends on reliable, free access to Federal government data – maps, elevation data, satellite images that show land covering. Ready access to the data frees computationally- inclined scientists to develop better software tools. Here, Brad McRae of the Nature Conservancy has applied Electronic Circuit Theory to help determine pathways that predict the movement and genetic differentiation of plant and animal habitats in areas subject to development. The software is Open and available at, and it has been used to investigate mountain lions, mountain goats, and frogs in the Western US. ... Q: Can data provided by Federal Statistical Agencies + software innovation = Impact?
  8. 8. Journalists, Programmers, Statisticians, Policy-makers Partners in Improving Federal Statistics Q: Can data provided by Federal Statistical Agencies + software innovation = Real World Impact? I think yes. But I would be more confident if journalists, programmers, statisticians, and policy-makers could work across disciplines and collaborate the way scientists do. In the case of Circuitscape, Brad McRae trained as an engineer before getting his PhD in Conservation Biology with Brett Dickson at Northern Arizona. Collaborator Viral Shah works on Interactive Supercomputing at UC Santa Barbara. Brad now works for the Nature Conservancy in Seattle applying his theory & tools to real-world conservation planning.
  9. 9. Q: Why isn't it a front-page story that the Federal Government can't solve the political conflicts in order to get good immigration data? A: "I wish one of my colleagues from the Washington Post was here. I'd turn (this question) over to them. The Washington Post does a wonderful job of covering those issues, better than the USA Today does. Because that's much closer to the heart of what the Post is and what its audience is." For effective collaboration there has to be willing participation. I don't think Government statisticians trust the media. I don't think press and policy-makers know know how they'll benefit from a better Federal Statistics Service. None of the groups have good outreach mechanisms to involve programmers. Leaders who cross disciplines should emerge.
  10. 10. Local Employment Dynamics Andrew Reamer calls a microdata collection of individual somethings--data on individual somethings with people, transactions, permits, and making them available to the public so that people can add value. He points to examples like the work going on with Local Employment Dynamics, a collaboration between Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau on Metro-scale employment migration trends. It combines state-provided administrative records on employment with Federal statistics. It uses 'synthetic data', a way to anonymize records to preserve anonymity. It has a public online interface. And it's leading to interesting research outcomes like 'labor sheds' and 'community sheds' that express ongoing relationships between where workers live and where workers work.
  11. 11. Dealing with Complexity There are not all that many ways in which the complex world gets processed by human brains. Narrative, statistics, algorithms, interfaces, and laws are some. The opportunity in having Journalists, Statisticians, Programmers, and Policy-makers collaborate lies in creating a sum that is greater than its parts. Here, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 > 4.
  12. 12. Other Issues ● Credibility ● Norms of Transparency ● Protecting Privacy Credibility: Federal Statistical Agencies have decades of non-partisian service to policy-makers and represent a Gold Standard in terms of the credibility of their data and analysis. Analysis & data coming from outside don't have the same 'inside-the-Beltway' credibility. It is an open question as to how the Federal Statistical Agencies can collaborate widely and maintain a solid reputation for non-partisianship. Norms of Transparency: If somehow, someway transparency becomes the political norm, the watchdog job (whether it's the press' job or someone else's) gets easier. This is where, I think, buy in from the Statistical agencies meets evidence-based policy. In a manner similar to how scientists reproduce experiments, watchdogs would have the means to work back from policy decisions to the evidence and if need be, down to source data. Protecting Privacy: Federal Laws govern the agencies use of data and protect individuals' privacy. One risk of advancing technology is that privacy safeguards might in the future be compromised by technologies that hadn't as yet been invented.
  13. 13. Folks in Washington DC at the Congressional Joint Economic Commission, at the Office of the Chief Statistician in OMB, and at the Census Bureau are interested in learning your thoughts. What can I tell them? If you are interested in continuing this conversation, let me know. Thank you.