In March this, the Small Business Equity Toolt, a data platform that I designed, was publicly launched. The goal of this data analytics and visualization platform is to capture and rank the performance of Black-, Women-, and Latino-owned businesses across metropolitan areas and cities in the U.S. Our ultimate purpose is to help close the racial, ethnic, and gender gap in the business landscape.

This is one milestone of a journey that started from scratch several months ago. Recent years have certainly seen an explosion of data tools, and the policy sphere has not been the exception. From The Opportunity Atlas to Data USA to the Growth Lab’s Viz Hub, data platforms have come to stay in our policy toolkits.

An additional tool for your policy toolkit: data platforms

It was June 2020. In the afternoon of my first day of work, the Lab’s Director shared with us a new database that had recently been released by the U.S. Census Bureau: the Annual Business Survey. It is a national survey that provides granular information of employer businesses in the U.S., disaggregated by sector, size, geographical areas and, even more important, by race, ethnicity, and gender. It is among the few national databases that provide business data disaggregated by demographics, and many local policymakers and stakeholders rely on this data to assess the inclusiveness of their business ecosystems.

Coming with a lot of experience in business data in my country (Argentina), I saw an opportunity right away and decided to take action. I processed the data with a statistical software, created relevant metrics, and developed a sophisticated Excel model, which enabled the user to conduct many relevant and insightful analyses. After 3 days of work, I had my first official deliverable as an employee of the Lab (and I was very proud of myself!).

Yet data does not mean knowledge. What for me were easy to read and intuitive dynamic tables in a spreadsheet, were almost illegible numbers for people who are not used to working with large amounts of data. A deck would not have fit the bill because the purpose of the data analysis was exploratory (and not explanatory), and we needed the flexibility of changing geographies and population groups in our analyses. Although I had at hand knowledge and access to software to create data dashboards such as Tableau, I hadn’t even considered using these kinds of tools. In this first attempt, my polished tables failed to capture my team’s attention, convey key insights, and lack flexibility (pivot tables and macros in an Excel cannot make all the trick!). So, in our journey to address the shortfalls of the initial Excel analysis, a new data platform was born: the Small Business Equity Data Tool.
What is the value added of a data platform?

I see three key strengths in data platforms:

  • They capture people’s attention. A good data platform can make the difference between encouraging policymakers and citizens to keep exploring certain issues and losing them in the first row of a table. It does not need to be a complex data platform, but it needs to be meaningful, memorable, and visually “sticky”. Visualizations work from a human perspective because we process visual data better than any other type of data. And there is no triviality here: how you present your data matters, what is the type of charts that you create matters, the colors that you choose matter.
  • They build a bridge between science and action. Data platforms are tools to highlight relevant findings or angles of a problem, translate complex data relationships into accessible analyses, and tell stories. By doing this, they have the power to bridge knowledge gaps and bring together the producers of content and those in the field absorbing knowledge to turn it into action.
  • They provide flexibility to analyze a topic. From user-friendly dynamic tables to insightful charts and visualizations, data platforms offer the possibility of strategically combining these elements to create knowledge from the data and analyze as many angles of the issue as it is relevant to do (and all this without overcrowding a screen with tables!).

A data platform is an additional tool that we all should have in our policy toolkit. Usually, it is not the final goal, but one of the means to achieve an objective. When deciding whether a data platform is the right tool, keep in mind its value-added: capturing people’s attention, bridging gaps of knowledge, and providing flexibility in the analysis of data. So, let me reframe the initial question: are data platforms the right tools given your objective and the value they can bring? You tell me.

If you have feedback or thoughts about this content, please reach out and let us start an exchange of ideas!