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Data for Social Good Through Unusual Partnerships

Georgetown has a multi-decade history of addressing important social and economic problems through original research. Over the recent years, this effort has employed new data resources to characterize the extent of a given problem, with the goal of identifying possible solutions.

As the sources of data become more diverse, scholars have identified underused sources that may shine the light on important, underinvestigated social problems. There is an emerging partnership in this domain that is an interesting example of networks of talent that sometimes need to coalesce around the desire to inform real change.

Through the leadership of Professors Tanina Rostain of the Law Center and Amy O’Hara of the Massive Data Institute, a new group is emerging. Professor Rostain has a long-term interest in the civil justice system. She has noted that inaccessibility of records describing civil justice proceedings has produced little scholarly (and public) understanding of the operations of those proceedings. Professor O’Hara has studied how local, county, and state government record systems can be analyzed for common good purposes while protecting the privacy of individuals whose data are contained in the records.

Today, there are real impediments to building evidence about civil justice operations. Only a limited number of authorized analytic researchers have been able to identify, negotiate and obtain data from multiple individual courts and other institutions. The time requirements for such access and data preparation often discourage progress.

What’s a pressing problem that need to be addressed right now? The sharp and deep recession, the vast extent of jobs lost, and widespread reductions in income, all have led to housing fragility. A new wave of evictions and foreclosures is now occurring and will continue for the foreseeable future. Many of these will be preceded by civil courts’ actions.

If researchers and policy-makers had ready access to civil court data, there could be opportunities for new policies, interventions, education, and outreach involving civil court problems. However, the policy organizations that must build the evidence base for these initiatives may lack technical infrastructure to analyze the needed data. Researchers can obtain and aggregate data, but they face unclear requirements to prevent data misuse and assess privacy concerns. Together, if the two groups could be given access to data permitting more evidence-driven policy, real solutions might be invented.

With assistance from the Fritz Family fellowship program of the Georgetown Technology and Society Network and research assistants from the Massive Data Institute, Professors Rostain and O’Hara built a Georgetown team to conceptualize a program to build a new approach to civil court data use.

The team will likely be enhanced through a proposed collaboration with the Digital Innovation group. Under the proposal, Amazon will facilitate a digital innovation workshop with Georgetown scholars, interested staff from the Pew Charitable Trusts, and knowledge staff from the civil courts of various jurisdictions.

The product of this network would be a set of software tools and use/privacy agreements to permit access to researchers seeking new insights into the courts processing of housing actions. It would create a platform that federates housing and debt data from diverse jurisdictions and offers remote access to researchers to compare cases across places. The goal would be more equitable treatment of cases across court systems and across socioeconomic groups.

These collaborative networks are complicated affairs, linking together software developers, legal scholars, social scientists, court officials, private foundation groups, and NGOs. They have subordinated their allegiance to their individual discipline to solving a pressing problem affecting our society. Their strength is in their diversity. Such strong networks are increasingly the way forward to building better evidence-based policy.

2 thoughts on “Data for Social Good Through Unusual Partnerships

  1. Law needs to protect human rights and do it together with technology and scientists. In this context, I think it may be useful to implement innovative ideas.

  2. Great ideas to address a huge civic problem. An example of the problem recently in Florida was stunning. Ex felons who were released from prison were not allowed to vote because they had to pay fees and fines first. Well a lot of them were not even able to find out How much they even had to payback because of horrible records. Props to GU. For this important endeavor.

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