Moonshot Idea: Using data to guide public policy

Sheri Chaney Jones
Columbus CEO

Columbus is regarded as one of the best places to live because of its affordability, educated workforce, collaborative public-private partnerships, high-tech innovation and corporations. Yet, many residents watch from the sidelines as the majority experience this prosperity.

For example, approximately 27 percent of Franklin County households make less than the annual salary—$35,000—needed to obtain affordable housing. An estimated 101 million meals go missed each year. And the infant mortality rate for Black infants is nearly twice as high as white infants.

For too long, our society has invested in public policy and nonprofits with our hearts instead of our heads. As I researched my book, Impact & Excellence, I found less than 25 percent of government programs nationwide are investing in data-driven strategies to solve our complex social problems, such as structural racism and poverty. Those that use data are significantly more likely to demonstrate more effective use of tax dollars and achieve greater community impact.

It’s a significant missed opportunity: Ethical, transparent, data-driven decision-making creates the foundation for replicable, achievable results within our communities, spurring radical transformation.

What if Columbus public and private leaders working to address some of our most complex social problems were to commit to developing data-driven solutions that allowed our heads to lead where our hearts want to go? Could data from police dispatchers, insurance providers and health care practitioners help predict which patients are most likely to develop opioid or substance use disorders to ensure targeted interventions are available?

The underlying technologies we use daily to order products online or request a driver are the same technologies that have the potential to solve our community’s greatest problems. Breakthrough social innovations will be possible only if leaders commit to an investment of data sharing and its strategic use.

This piece of thought leadership is part of 11 Moonshot Ideas to Move the Columbus Region Forward: A Future 50 project.


The need for a civic renaissance • The private sector should fight inequity • Closing the digital divide • Driving equity by funding women-owned businesses • Designing a more equitable region • Using data to guide public policy • Customer-centricity in social services • A radical recalibration of education • ISO: Ambassadors for science • Finding true work-life balance post-Covid • Reimagining community-police relations • Why we did this project

Annually, millions of dollars are spent on programs designed to combat poverty. Yet, we don’t have clear evidence of which programs are most effective at achieving lasting economic benefits for program recipients. When public-sector leaders commit to the ethical use of data, government agencies can identify needs, allocate resources to address those needs and continuously evaluate the effectiveness of their interventions.

Data platforms and algorithms must be transparent and open to avoid mathematical models claiming to quantify traits such as creditworthiness that actually reinforce inequality. Open data-driven strategies help develop less biased interventions by examining social problems through gender and racial lenses. For example, data-driven strategies are already being used in the Columbus economic development space to identify communities with failing businesses, and with this knowledge, programs and resources were targeted to these struggling entrepreneurs.

The Ethical Data Commitment for Public Good

We propose that Columbus region business and government leaders use their significant sway to advance legislation and policies to adopt ethical, data-driven strategies, policies and investments to create a more equitable and prosperous place for all. The Ethical Data Commitment would require Columbus leaders to report on how they achieve the following data best practices:

• Be open by default—Invest in open data, transparency and data sharing for public benefit;

• Make data-driven decisions—Use ethically sourced data to support all laws and policies that are passed;

• Budget for the work—Devote resources to capture, clean, analyze and report public-sector data;

• Require impact measurement in investments—Reward social service agencies for using data-driven, innovative strategies;

• Integrate data for insights and innovation—Work collaboratively on a regional data exchange to achieve legally sourced data-sharing across multiple agencies and organizations; and

• Commit to indicators—Share insights and implement continuous improvements practices.

Historically, Columbus has been known as America’s test city for retail and fast food brands. Striving to create a data-driven community could shepherd in a Test City 2.0 focused on leveraging our resources for the development of a data economy. A commitment to the ethical use of data would create new jobs, where ordinary citizens could work on behalf of our city and public institutions as a “Citizen Data Brigade” doing the critical work of collecting and scrubbing new data—a key step in discovering powerful, useful insights for social good.

Smart Columbus Operating System powers innovation

Breaking through barriers to using public data is one of the key challenges the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) had in mind when creating the Smart City Challenge in 2015. The USDOT envisioned a city where transportation and community challenges were addressed by technology and data-driven solutions.

As the winner of the challenge, Columbus created the Smart Columbus Operating System, an integrated exchange where data can be collected, aggregated, published and used to power new solutions and ideas. The operating system serves as the data “backbone” for seven mobility projects, serving to collect and transmit data about the projects, and to capture performance data reported to the USDOT and the public.

Public, anonymized data is syndicated via the operating system as open data, accessible to Columbus city agencies, academic researchers, startups and app developers as well as the community at large. By opening data to the community, Smart Columbus and its partners hope that it may be leveraged within or from outside the public sector to help residents move more efficiently and safely.

Yet the application of the operating system extends well outside Columbus. The operating system is built in open source code, enabling other cities to “fork” the code for free, unlocking them from costly contracts and providing access to an $11 million system they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to build or access. Without the impetus of the Smart City Challenge, no other city would have had cause or incentive to initiate the development of an open source data management platform for the public good, but this local initiative will serve to democratize cities’ ability to process and leverage data.

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Historically, Columbus has been known as America’s test city for retail and fast food brands. Striving to create a data-driven community could shepherd in a Test City 2.0 focused on leveraging our resources for the development of a data economy.

Sheri Chaney Jones is founder of Measurement Resources and SureImpact. She has spent 20 years using data to advance organizations including early education, domestic and juvenile courts, universities, health care, mental health and the aging system.

With contributions from Falon Donohue, Alex Frommeyer, Rehgan Avon, Bill Balderaz and Jordan Davis

Sheri Chaney Jones, founder of Measurement Resources and SureImpact