Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 35: Future of Infrastructure: Using Data to Make Equitable Investments

Episode 35 guest speaker, Denice Ross

Future of Infrastructure: Using Data to Make Equitable Investments

with Denice Ross

In our discussion, the Chief Data Scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy shares a behind-the-scenes look into how data can be used to measure equitable investments and their outcomes.

Episode 35: Future of Infrastructure: Using Data to Make Equitable Investments

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Denice Ross is the Chief Data Scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In our discussion, she shared a behind-the-scenes look into how data can be used to measure equitable investments and their outcomes with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

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Data is driving equitable investments in infrastructure

Denice Ross is the Chief Data Scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In our discussion, she shared a behind-the-scenes look into how data can be used to measure equitable investments and their outcomes with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The catapulting moment

Denice Ross is the Chief Data Scientist at The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Before her time working for the current President of the United States, she spent over a decade analyzing data for nonprofits in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, Ross found herself working for City Hall and that’s where she discovered the kind of work she really wanted to do.

“There’s one specific moment that really stands out for me that sharpened my sense of professional purpose, and that was after I got into City Hall. When Mayor Landrieu took office in 2010, he had committed to reducing the number of blighted storm damaged properties by 10,000. And you can imagine data management was critical at every step of that process.” 

Ross added, “And code enforcement officers were collecting inspection findings on sites throughout the city, and they were doing so with yellow pads of paper, and like they each had a different process, and they’d take photos and then stuffed the photos into envelopes and put them with their yellow pads of paper.  We had to turn that into a centralized electronic system, and then also had to integrate timely, geographically accurate data from demolition crews, and the courts, and the state recovery offices.”

“And there had to be easy ways for citizens to report on problem properties. And like, what was really important to them is to check on the status of the remediation because these properties were really getting in the way of neighborhood recovery at the block-by-block level.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

Shortly after starting her role as Chief Data Scientist, the President signed The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law. The IIJA will provide $550 billion dollars in new funding over the next five years. There are more than 375 distinct programs that range from high-speed internet to creating reliable public transit to replacing lead pipes. 

“My team in particular is collaborating closely with the implementation of this law. And one simple thing that we do is every month, our team at the White House updates a spreadsheet that covers all of these programs for easy sorting, and that spreadsheet informs this handy document on open programs that you can apply for today, as well as a larger guidebook for communities,” Ross said.

“And one thing that we’re finding from a data perspective is just the lift when you’ve got this scale of 375 distinct programs. Like, that itself is a data challenge, wrangling all that into a format that’s easy, for especially jurisdictions that are lower capacity and might not have, you know, access to high-paid consultants to do their grant writing, make it really easy for them to access this information.” 

Ross continued, “What makes me really excited about this infrastructure law is not just how much money it is, or the drumbeat of all of these great funding opportunities coming online, but that these investments are being rolled out with equity as a top priority. And that’s ensuring that underserved communities have fair access to these resources. And that’s been a theme throughout, you know, since day one in this administration. And so, my job is to figure out how to make that happen with data.”

A peek behind the curtain

“One of the most important things is, you know, for maintaining high-quality data is to get it being used immediately, so that folks see the value in contributing to the data. And so, there are a few concrete ways that we’re ensuring equitable distribution of these infrastructure dollars and using data to make that happen, and one is by using data to make sure that we’re reaching the communities that need those investments the most.”

Ross gave an example, “If it looks like a webinar series didn’t have much participation from persistent poverty counties in the south, we’ll double our efforts to reach those communities. Or we’re using evidence to inform the design of technical assistance programming. And then one of my favorite ways that we operationalize this is to make sure that the equity considerations are part of the funding opportunity announcements for these programs.”

Ross said it’s worth noting that programs often won’t specifically say that you can carve out some of the money to cover data capacity. But any federal programming that comes down the pike, whether it’s American Rescue Plan dollars, or the new Inflation Reduction Act money that’ll be hitting cities soon, has funds that can be used for staffing, so that you can deliver these resources more equitably, and make sure that you’re serving the communities that need this funding the most. 

“It’s not often explicitly mentioned in the funding opportunities, but if it’s not explicitly prohibited, then you should just like carve out, you know, half of a percent, so that you’ve got the data capacity to make sure that you’re able to make midcourse corrections as you’re rolling out your infrastructure projects  – so that you’re not leaving any important communities behind who really need this support,” Ross added.

Looking at measures

“One thing that’s different about the way that this law (IIJA) is being implemented is that, where feasible, we are also collecting data on projects after the funding is awarded on the location of the project and its status, so that we have better visibility on what communities are benefiting.”

Ross continued, “So, once you have location level data of where the shovels are in the ground, or what communities are benefiting, then you can link that up with census data, for example, and do an equity assessment to see like, okay, well, here’s where the infrastructure – structure projects are, but over here is the community that needed that investment the most. So, let’s steer this work more toward where it’s going to be most needed.”

The general premise of the work that Ross’ team does is collecting as much data as possible, early and often, to inform a continued iteration moving toward more equitable investments. 

“And the most important thing about this approach is that we collect the data in such a way that we can slice and dice it by different characteristics. So certainly, location is important to that, but also being able to bump that up against demographics, so we know the race and ethnicity of the neighborhoods and the income levels and disability statuses and whatnot. Ideally using those equity assessments to drive changes in policies or programs. And then ultimately, we want more equitable outcomes to come out of it.”

One problem that Ross and her team experience is answering the question of “what does equitable investment mean?” and “what’s the difference between equal and equitable?” Ross gave an example of how these questions manifest at the local level:

“So, let’s say you’ve got funding to replace the lead pipes in your city, so that everyone has clean drinking water, but lead pipes have been in the ground a long time, before we kept digital records. And so, how do you know, as the mayor, with any confidence on which streets to dig up, as you’re trying to prioritize, like which communities should get the state revolving funds to do the lead pipe replacement?” 

Ross added, “One way to do this equally, is to just divide it up, like you might with your kids, like everybody gets a lollipop, right? So, the city council might suggest that digs for lead pipes be equally distributed across council districts. And that might give you a hit rate of 15%, meaning that 15% of the time that you dig into the street, you find a lead pipe and replace it. Or you could use data science to predict where the lead pipes are. Your models would include small, disaggregated data on things like housing age, or income levels and other factors. And using that approach, you might increase your hit rate to closer to 70%.”

“And this data on hit rates for different methods can allow you to tune your lead pipe program, so that it focuses on where residents are currently being poisoned, and you have more rapid and equitable outcomes.  So, by doing this, this type of equity analysis early and often, you end up with much better outcomes. You end up with healthier children, fewer torn up streets, and a more efficient use of tax dollars. But it’s not necessarily equal; it’s equitable.”

Implementing infrastructure projects

Finding the best way to implement a new infrastructure project is always a challenge. Does Ross have any advice on how to do it well?

“This is a lot of money coming in, and whenever that happens in the community, people are going to wonder, well, where did it go and who did it benefit? And all this money came in, and my life isn’t any different. And so, transparency and accountability and engagement from the very beginning are so critical to making this work,” Ross said.

“This infrastructure is just so close to people’s lives and their everyday experience in the community, that you have to engage them early on how to prioritize these resources, not just where should the work go in, but how should it be implemented? How do we blend and braid these programs so that we’re creating a complete solution, rather than some physical manifestation of the government funding silos, right?”

It all comes down to transparency. It’s the most important part of the process, according to Ross.

“So, I would say really lean into that transparency. The money flowing down shouldn’t be a secret; it should be something that we like, celebrate and talk about and as a community, figure out where and how the money should be spent to deliver the outcomes that a community needs.”

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