When the United States government issued its Federal Data Strategy in 2019, it recognized the role of data as a component of infrastructure. This point must not be lost as the country proceeds in considering the President’s American Jobs Plan, the infrastructure proposal presented by the White House in March 2021.
The reason data is infrastructure is simple – no aspect of traditional or social infrastructure, spending, or implementation of any government service or activity can be designed, implemented, and monitored without a coherent, sustained data capacity. Data infrastructure involves the people, processes, systems, and resources that enable the entire ecosystem for data-driven decision-making from the collection of information through the analysis and presentation. It involves the systems on which information is stored, but also much more to ensure the information stored is high-quality and usable.
Data infrastructure requires investment, just like building and repairing roads or creating a greener economy. For too long, our country has underinvested in its national data infrastructure and we have an opportunity to correct this problem. Congress and the White House can leverage the American Jobs Plan to ensure the country has critical information and capabilities for using data to support accountability, learning, and transparency for the American public.
Here are three suggestions of data infrastructure components that meet longstanding needs and support national priorities:
- Build a National Secure Data Service. The federal government lacks a comprehensive, secure capability to share and link sensitive information for analytics. A data service can bring together information from federal, state, local, and private collections to support answering priority questions about employment, earnings, and equity. Establishing a data service as a new resource for infrastructure in government promotes the use of data, while addressing longstanding barriers to sharing information that can unnecessarily impede our ability to learn about what strategies and policies work best. This could be included in the $180 billion investment for R&D.
- Prioritize Needed Workforce Development Information. As part of the effort to build capacity for the national workforce development capabilities, the country needs to ensure appropriate data are collected through the relevant programs and activities. This includes the ability to connect information about education with information about earnings and occupations. Setting aside up to 1 percent of the planned investment to ensure data collection, management, and evaluation activities can support effective implementation would be prudent to make investments in state longitudinal data systems. This could be adopted as part of the $100 billion workforce investment.
- Promote R&D on Data-Privacy Technologies. Emerging privacy-preserving technologies offer opportunities for the country to rapidly expand analytical and research capabilities, yet many of these technologies will need additional R&D prior to widespread deployment. With a major planned investment in R&D capabilities at the National Science Foundation, a portion of the $50 billion technology investment should include a focus on data protection.
If the country is serious about building an infrastructure for the challenges of the 21st century, we must also have the data to ensure the policies and investments achieve intended goals.