During these unprecedented times, I’ve been humbled by those working tirelessly and selflessly on the front lines to help our families, friends, neighbors, and communities affected by COVID-19. We have all heard stories of these heroes — the doctors and nurses who sacrifice their own health to save lives; the teachers who have quickly developed remote curriculum for our children to continue learning; and the grocery store workers who put themselves at risk every day so that we can access food and other household essentials.
There is another group of heroes that we haven’t heard as much about: our local government leaders and the teams helping them develop responsive policies in this incredibly uncertain environment.
Across the country, policymakers are putting aside politics and leaning on the best quality data and evidence to bring innovative solutions into practice for cities and states wrestling with this unfolding pandemic. In several jurisdictions, groups supported by Arnold Ventures called Policy Labs are bringing together data experts and social scientists to help governments rapidly respond to their most pressing challenges.
In Harris County, Texas, County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a formal partnership with the Texas Policy Lab at Rice University. For the past month, the county and the Texas Policy Lab have been working around the clock to produce and acquire the best scientific information to inform critical decisions such as the stay-at-home order and how to mitigate transmission in the county’s jails and juvenile detention facilities. “Thousands of lives across Harris County depend on our work to respond to this crisis strategically, and we’re delighted to have the best and brightest minds from the Texas Policy Lab supporting our effort to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19,” said Hidalgo.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo six weeks ago assembled a team of epidemiologists, computer scientists, economists, statisticians, and data scientists from the Department of Health and The Policy Lab at Brown University. In record time the modeling team pulled together the most up-to-date data, in consultation with experts at Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington, to build a model the state of Rhode Island can use to better understand and predict the virus’s path. “We’ve been hard at work trying to gather data, review the science, talk to experts, and do the best as a team to make sure we’re doing the best job for you…our model reflects the Rhode Island experience and includes data that reflects our community…and gives us the sense of where we are and where we’re going,” said Raimondo in a recent press conference.
At the direction of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, The Lab @ DC, an internal team of data scientists, social scientists, and design-thinkers, has supported the District’s comprehensive response to COVID-19, as well as the plans on how to ReOpen DC. Like many jurisdictions, D.C. is facing a substantial revenue gap, and The Lab, which resides in the Office of the City Administrator, is applying the latest available evidence to meet Bowser’s charge to close the budgetary shortfall and “to not just reopen our city, but to build a more equitable D.C.”
In California, the city of Los Angeles is working with the California Policy Lab on several fronts. It is prioritizing outreach and services to the homeless, one of the most at-risk populations affected by the pandemic. The California Policy Lab is also employing new data methods and conducting research to inform discussions on how to adapt the state’s Unemployment Insurance program (which received 4 million claims since mid March) to the unparalleled demand.
There are numerous other examples across the country. For example, several jurisdictions are working with the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT to learn what the evidence says regarding how to help low-income workers find new jobs in a recession, how to ensure the welfare and physical safety of children during prolonged periods of household stress, and how to help small business owners who have lost their businesses to name a few.
It is important to note that this policy work won’t end once we have resumed life post pandemic. Our policymakers will continue to tackle challenging policy questions as we recover and rebuild. I hope they continue to put politics aside and lean heavily on data and evidence to generate insights on how to reform these critical public systems.