Opinion: Better data collection will reduce digital inequalities

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It's become a popular talking point to list all the risks of data collection, whether it be privacy and surveillance or the lack of transparency that can come with data ownership. But rather than stay bogged down in the potential risks, it's time to consider how a lack of data collection about some individuals and communities can negatively affect their quality of life.

In today's digital economy, one significant barrier to opportunity is the data divide, the gaps between the data haves and the data have-nots, and the social and economic inequalities resulting from this lack of data collection and use.

Closing the data divide needs to be a policy priority in the United States to drive robust and equitable growth in the digital economy. Data has become invaluable in today's economy, where the extent to which individuals and communities can collect data and put it to productive use helps determine everything from health outcomes to public safety and economic growth.

Unfortunately, many have jumped on the bandwagon of criticizing data-driven decision-making as too biased. The truth is that some data-driven services don't work optimally for some people and groups, especially those from historically underrepresented communities because there is often insufficient data to train these systems. Many of these same critics also argue that data collection is too intrusive, keeping solutions to this problem out of reach. Without prioritizing data equity, the United States will continue to perpetuate digital inequalities and miss out on the opportunity for impactful societal change.

Insufficient representation in data poses a serious barrier to many communities and their ability to benefit from data-driven innovation and participate in the data economy. While some individuals are treated with precision medicine and attend schools powered by learning analytics, others make decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information about themselves, their families and their communities.

These divides manifest in many ways, from demographic and geographic data gaps to inequitable data systems. That means specific characteristics about your background or where you live determine your ability to benefit from data-driven services and whether the necessary data systems and infrastructure exist.

For example, many Americans have unnecessarily low or inaccurate credit scores due to the data infrastructure for financial services. Credit bureaus often determine someone's risk and qualification for loans and other services based on information about financial borrowing and repayment history from traditional financial institutions. But this leaves out key forms of "novel" or alternative data, like on-time rent or utility payments, and even information about cash flow in a bank account.

Similarly, older or underfunded health data infrastructure restricts many patients, providers and researchers in their understanding of individual and community health. Health care lags behind other sectors in updating technologies for the digital era. For example, although 90% of nonfederal acute care hospitals use certified electronic health records (EHR) technology, just 55% use the systems to exchange patient data and 73% have challenges exchanging patient information across different EHR systems.

So, depending on where one lives, if they receive testing or care in one health system, that information doesn't always transfer between systems, leaving patients with incomplete or inaccurate records. Incomplete EHRs mean less-accurate diagnoses and treatments.

It's not just that more data will inform better policy. Rather than exacerbating these inequalities and continuing with the status quo, enhancing high-quality data collection and use will empower individuals and communities to better understand themselves and their surroundings and make more informed decisions. Updating infrastructure for environmental data collection will allow more Americans to have accurate, updated information about their surroundings and environmental risk levels, and increasing the availability of longitudinal data systems means students and families can make informed decisions about what type of school will create the best educational outcome. The risk is that some communities have too little data collected about them and are falling behind in the digital economy.

Addressing the data divide will help increase equal opportunity in the United States for everyone. High-quality data is necessary for high-quality results. Only through more equitable data collection can policymakers ensure that all of society has the opportunity to benefit from data-driven innovation.

Gillian Diebold is an expert on data disparities and digital inequalities at the Center for Data Innovation. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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