Public data abounds, but relatively little of it is publicly accessible, and even less of it is linked in a meaningful way. Spreadsheets and databases often live on closed computer networks inside individual state agencies or organizations. The information is difficult to access and analyze, and its usefulness is limited.
A new web portal, Vermont Insights, aims to change that. Vermont Insights is designed to serve as a portal for about a dozen data sets on topics such as educational attainment, public health, employment, housing and transportation.
About 160 stakeholders attended a daylong preview and hands-on introduction to the website Thursday at the Montpelier Elks Country Club. The event was designed to get the word out, and to begin gathering feedback on how best to develop the site.
Organizers will continue to form more data-sharing agreements with state agencies and other public or private contributors in order to bring more data into the system. They’ll also start adding functionality, such as the ability to layer multiple indicators rather than view one at a time.
The project’s origins
Vermont Insights is a federally funded project of the public-private partnership Building Bright Futures, a nonprofit that serves as the governance structure for Vermont’s early childhood system. Anticipated stakeholders include policymakers, practitioners, researchers, administrators, philanthropists, advocates, parents and children.
Co-director Kathleen Paterson said BBF looked beyond the childhood experience to include the broader communities in which children are raised.
Vermont’s State Data Center, housed at the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies, is the project’s first partner. The organizations announced Thursday they were drafting a memorandum of understanding to outline their “emerging strategic alliance.” Their work together is expected to establish a long-term partnership to keep Vermont Insights relevant long into the future.
State data centers like the one at UVM exist in all 50 states, but Vermont State Data Center coordinator Michael Moser said the vision for Vermont Insights is unique in its ambition to both pull together and disseminate virtually limitless data points related to public policy in the state.
Paterson said Vermont Insights is not just about data access, but about promoting the use of data to inform decision-making and policy dialogue.
Ensuring accessibility and accuracy
Key to its value is the currency of the website’s data, much of which is updated automatically as sources such as the Census Bureau release their updates. This is a matter of efficiency for Vermont Insights developers, as manual data management can be time-consuming and expensive.
It’s also a major asset for end-users, who conceivably can spend less time hunting down current information and more time analyzing it. A committee of “data stewards” ensures the integrity and accuracy of all data made available on the site, and two staff members — for now, temporarily funded — assist public users.
But reliance on the website, as with any source of information, is not without caution. Developers researched each topic and provided explanatory narratives for various data sets, as well as recommended data sets to answer specific policy questions. However, even the most robust data sources only tell part of any story.
During a feedback session Thursday, Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, expressed her growing concern about whether data users and audiences can distinguish the difference between correlation and causation when viewing certain indicators side-by-side.
“As a policymaker, you’re confronted with a lot of data points and I’m constantly struggling with that,” Buxton said. Just because two numbers are presented next to each other doesn’t mean that one influences the other, she said.
David Murphey, senior research scientist at the Washington, D.C.-based Child Trends, agreed.
“All good data raise further questions,” he said. “The context around that data need to be carefully crafted as to the conclusions that can and cannot draw from that.”
Paterson said these issues underscore the importance of deep involvement by data users and contributors. Constant scrutiny and feedback will make the data portal useful, she said.