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U.S. Governments Turn Data into Insights to Deal with Equity Issues

When it comes to the quest for an equitable distribution of services in states and localities as well as diversity and inclusion in their workforces, the specifics of the challenge varies from place to place. But one common theme has emerged: In order to truly understand the problems that need to be solved, leaders must have the necessary data in hand.

The study of city, county and state data informs leaders not just how taxpayer money is spent, but also how it is raised and how it is invested in neighbourhoods. It also is needed to determine whether government employees, high-level officials, board members and vendors reflect the demographic composition of the entity and are equitably compensated.

Data allow us to better understand how the city and the community at large can contribute to a sense of belonging for residents and employees.

– Farris Muhammad, Director of Equity and Inclusion

The first step, of course, is determining where inequities exist. In Akron, Ohio, for example, a procurement report was released in June 2020, which found that only 5% of the money spent on city contracts in 2019 had gone to minority-owned businesses, although 30% of its population is Black.

Findings like that have limited power unless they are the triggers for action. Akron’s discovery led to the creation of a new position to work on contract compliance and supplier diversity, with Sheena Fain, an entrepreneur with substantial private sector experience, taking the position in March 2021.

To locate new potential vendors, she created lists of minority businesses. With the help of several private companies, she then organised classes to provide information about competing on city contracts and how to go about being certified as potential minority contractors. A new vendor management system was installed creating a more open and transparent bidding process.

Many cities and counties have similar stories to tell with data pushing governments to integrate new equity goals into strategic plans and introduce new tactics to remove past barriers. In Dubuque, Iowa, for example, an analysis of demographic data on student enrollment in AP courses in high school found disproportionately few Black students taking AP courses.

In Iowa, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque put together an annual “data walk”  to provide a central spot where residents, community groups, government employees, nonprofits and other interested parties could examine and discuss key data points on different topics. Among the topics in 2021 and 2020 were employment and equity and racial equity.

One other promising tool was recently introduced through a partnership between the Government Alliance on Race and a software firm that specialises in geographic information system software, location intelligence and mapping. The new social equity analysis tool provides a geospatial mapping approach that can be used to visualise areas of focus, evaluate the community-level impact and guide government decision making. It will enable governments to use an intersectional lens to identify patterns of need and opportunities to enhance equity through an examination of geography, race, ethnicity, disability, gender and other areas of interest.

As reported by OpenGov Asia, the justice system, banks, and private companies use algorithms to make decisions that have profound impacts on people’s lives. Unfortunately, those algorithms are sometimes biased — disproportionately impacting people of colour as well as individuals in lower-income classes when they apply for loans or jobs, or even when courts decide what bail should be set while a person awaits trial.

U.S. researchers have developed a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) programming language that can assess the fairness of algorithms more exactly, and more quickly, than available alternatives. Their Sum-Product Probabilistic Language (SPPL) is a probabilistic programming system.

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