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Closing the Data Gap to Rebuild a More Inclusive and Sustainable Economy

Power of Ideas
Closing the Data Gap to Rebuild a More Inclusive and Sustainable Economy

As the past months have shown, technology both connects and divides us. Children returning to school may not have a reliable connection to their teachers. As the government distributes relief payments, cities without adequate digital infrastructure struggle to quickly get money to their citizens. And on the job front, essential workers put themselves at risk daily for a low wage because the job market in a digital economy rewards a different set of skills and qualifications that they struggle to attain. 

During an Urban Institute panel discussion, Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia, said that we are in the midst of a next-generation struggle for civil rights. Where 60 years ago, people fought for access to lunch counters and voting booths, today it’s a struggle for equal access to technology and information. And that means not just internet access but access to the data and knowledge that drive our economy and society. 

Every sector, and every company, can play a vital role in leveraging knowledge and information for social impact.

Mayor Nutter’s words struck a deep chord for me. It crystalized much of what we’ve been working toward at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. We’ve seen first-hand how the pandemic has exposed many of the pre-existing inequalities present in society. With a remit to identify and use the company’s assets for social impact, we’ve been working to address not only the health and economic disparities exacerbated by the pandemic but also how access to data can better support inclusive growth. While many have access to data, some organizations have data scientists and sophisticated data models and analytics to guide decisions. Meanwhile, others, mostly in the nonprofit space, are relying on antiquated tools and systems. We are working to bridge this gap by increasing access to and developing new data decision-making tools to support the lives and livelihoods of those who need it most. 

Our Inclusive Growth Score is a good example. It’s a free online tool designed to attract investment and development to underserved neighborhoods and struggling cities. But rather than focusing on investments that may come at the expense of community health, the tool supports success measures that can lead to inclusive growth. 

The toolkit tracks 18 socioeconomic measures, including the number of new women and minority-owned businesses, consumer spending, access to the internet, and available parks and greenspace. The goal is to create a new set of incentives to direct investment to benefit all people.

In Erie, Pennsylvania, the Inclusive Growth Score uncovered the hidden economic potential necessary to attract larger investors who might otherwise have passed them by. It is also helping to bring a grocery store, food hall, and culinary arts program to a food desert. In the fallout from COVID-19, data and insights like these will be critical to helping cities rebound stronger and more inclusively.  

We also have a chance to rebuild a more inclusive labor force. While frontline essential workers have saved the day, their low pay and volatile incomes keep them on shaky economic ground. The Brookings Workforce of the Future initiative, with support from the Center, is using data to help local leaders better understand where and how many vulnerable jobs concentrate in their city or state. The initiative is also applying network science to analyze each city’s unique capabilities—including infrastructure, talent, and institutions—and inform how and where cities can invest and make policies to support the creation of quality, good-paying jobs

For those who may not realize that they qualify for government benefits, Benefits Data Trust has been using machine learning tools to identify candidates and help simplify the application process. To catalyze and scale such efforts and build the field of data science for social impact, the Center joined forces with the Rockefeller Foundation earlier this year to launch and a new $10 million Inclusive Growth and Recovery challenge.  

These are just a few examples of how tapping into the power of data and insights can advance inclusive growth. Every sector, and every company, can play a vital role in leveraging knowledge and information for social impact. If private-sector companies like ours that incentivize a race to the top and value a “culture of decency” can join together with public- and social-sector organizations, not only can we respond with speed and scale, but we can rebuild our economies for the benefit of everyone.