The 21st century is a world where data - bits of information about what we do, what we say, and how we spend money - has become as important as the story narrative. It’s hard to make any kind of case with a story alone. You need facts to back up your account. You need details. You need numbers.
Right now, of course, big data is a hot story all by itself. The Guardian newspaper broke the story about how the National Security Agency has developed a powerful tool for collecting and analyzing billions of bits of information. The newspaper cited an NSA fact sheet saying this is a tool that “allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country."
In this map, countries with scant data are green and countries where lots of electronic spying is occurring, such as Iran, are red.
The collection of private communication is a serious issue, one that in a democracy requires a vigorous debate. But the second I saw this map, I was reminded yet again that Indian Country has a different kind of data problem. There is too little reliable, timely information.
If Indian Country were to show up on the NSA’s data heat map we would be the brightest green zone on the planet.
In an era of austerity this lack of data has serious consequences. Quick: What’s the unemployment rate in Indian Country? Has it gone up or down since the sequester? What’s the actual number for furloughs? How about our spending patterns? I could go on and on.
The honest answer to every one of these questions has to be a “don’t know.” A year ago the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported that it would not release a 2010 Indian Population and Labor Force Report because “of methodology inconsistencies.” Donald E. Laverdure, acting Assistant Secretary -- Indian Affairs, wrote July 2, 2012, that the “collected data from those 2010 methods did not adequately meet the standards of quality and reliability that are required of Federal agencies in reporting official statistics.”
In a rare data driven document, the Economic Policy Institute released its picture of American Indian and Alaska Native unemployment finding that the national unemployment rate did jump during the recession from 2007 to the first half of 2010, and increased 7.7 percentage points to 15.2%. That same year EPI reported the “unemployment rate for Alaska Natives jumped 6.3 percentage points to 21.3, the highest regional unemployment rate for American Indians.” (more…)