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Data Labs: Applying the Model in Other Contexts


Data Labs: Applying the Model in Other Contexts


[ess_grid alias=”datalabs”]


Help public decision makers understand the value proposition for the creation of institutional infrastructure and governance to enable the use of administrative data for more data-driven governance and then understand alternatives for how to create such labs; and make the case for creating a data lab to facilitate use of administrative data by civil society actors.


Data Labs: Improving Access to Government Data


Though they have long collected data, increasingly in digital form, government agencies have struggled to create the infrastructure and acquire the skills needed to make use of this administrative data to realize the promise of evidence-based policymaking. By connecting policy makers, government data owners and university data scientists, data and policy labs are helping government and the social sector get smarter and improve public policies and services through data science. The Data Lab gets access to state administrative data in exchange for which the State gets access to talented data scientists and computational social scientists. The ever-increasing number and type of data labs are an encouraging sign for more evidence-based decision making in government.

Though there are far fewer instances of these labs catering to the nonprofit sector and charities, their experience offer several learnings for the future. Our case studies document some of these models with the intention of understanding what is required to be able to make better use of administrative data including the governance structures, technology infrastructure and key personnel. We found that key enabling conditions for setting up a data lab include:

  1. Data: Availability of the relevant data sets and the ability to gauge the quality of those datasets
  2. Data Owners: Buy-in from government agencies not only for sharing data but to do so in a form that is suitable for analysis
  3. Legal and Ethical Governance: Frameworks to enable the use of these data sets in a responsible and ethical manner
  4. Resources: Availability of the necessary human capital to enable analysis & funding for data labs to be set up
  5. Environment: A culture that supports impact measurement/evaluation
  6. Lead Advocate: A data lab project team/principal investigator with strong networks
  7. Customers: When providing a service to nonprofits, identifiable and committed organizations that would use the data lab

At NPC we have been researching, supporting and advocating for Data Labs focussed on evaluating impact on social issues over the last seven years within the UK. Our work to further impact Data Labs internationally has highlighted the importance of partnering with similarly minded organisations who havestrong networks outside of the UK. Only through partnership have we been able to quickly acquire knowledge of the state of administrative data infrastructure in other countries and the various initiatives taking place to build upon it. This has informed our approach to establishing data labs. Our case studies of policy labs in the US tells us that there is space for the impact data lab model to be incorporated within existing infrastructure so that all organisations can evaluate their social programmes easily and efficiently.

None of the US policy lab case studies included an explicit offer for nonprofits to become involved in sharing in the process of researching and evaluating social issues and problems. This feels like a missed opportunity given that many nonprofits are at the forefront of working to alleviate social issues and was the key argument within this team’s SSIR piece. The key challenges for implementing further data labs in the US are the lack of technical and legal standards for data sharing, and the data infrastructure which enabled the Ministry of Justice to quickly set up a data lab (within a year) is still being built. In addition, while the UK government also has its difficulties in recruiting data analytical staff, the problem appears to be more acute in the US which hampers efforts for government to make use of its own data.

What’s Next?

The team will continue dissemination of the current materials to broader audiences through participation in relevant events and conferences and ask the data lab owners to continue to update their case studies to maintain currency. NPC’s work to develop data labs in employment, education and health will continue on a limited basis as piloting has already begun in employment and education. The health work has involved convening a group of big and small influencers and service provider charities to advocate for a health data lab, and while a pilot has not yet launched, it has been slow and steady progress over the years. The team remains committed to data labs as it lies within the mission of supporting charities to use resources effectively and prioritise impact, and most importantly because charities indicate they need this support. We seek opportunities for funding to further develop data labs and supporting organizations outside of the UK who are considering setting up a data lab.

Learn More

To advance the goal of explaining data and policy labs, we researched, wrote and published seven original case studies exploring the various models of data and policy labs in the United States and the UK. These include:

  • Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy (AISP): AISP brings together state and local governments and their university and non-profit partners in a professional learning network of institutions which maintain and run Integrated Data Systems (IDS) and engages in federal advocacy to support data sharing to inform evidence-based policy, and conducts research using administrative data.
  • California Policy Lab: A university-government partnership that aims to help cities, counties and the State of California improve public programs through empirical research, program evaluations and technical assistance provided by UCLA and UC Berkeley to the end of improving the lives of
  • Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL): In partnership with the State of Rhode Island, works with state, local and federal government agencies to unlock the power of data, economics, and behavioral science to improve policies, alleviate poverty, and increase economic opportunity in Rhode Island and beyond.
  • The Center for State Child Welfare Data (Chapin Hall, University of Chicago): A membership-based network which enables public sector agencies to access data securely and use it for analyses that support service improvements that target children placed away from their parents.
  • University of Chicago Urban Labs: Building on the model of the Crime Lab, which partners with policymakers and practitioners to help cities design and test the most promising ways to reduce crime, the University of Chicago launched Urban Labs in 2015 to help cities tackle urban challenges in
    the crime, education, energy & environment, health, and poverty domains.
  • Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP): WSIPP helps the Washington state legislature and other Washington state policy makers make evidence-based policy decisions by
    conducting public policy research and carrying out cost-benefit analyses of the state’s programs and policies.
  • Ministry of Justice Data Lab: The first UK data lab tailored to supporting nonprofits to undertake programme evaluations and open to all organisations working to reduce reoffending. It is an analytical service run by the UK Ministry of Justice which NPC advocated and co-designed, and to date continues to support the MoJ team when needed.

Further reading about data labs:

All case studies, articles and blogs can be found at