Solving Public Problems with Data: Empowering Public Entrepreneurs to Use Data in Their Everyday Work

By Dinorah Cantú-Pedraza and Sam DeJohn

This month, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 (HR 4174). In a year distinctive for the absence of legislative consensus, this bipartisan bill was based on the recommendation of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking whose 15 expert members declared in a letter to the President and the leaders of Congress that we need a future in which, “rigorous evidence is created efficiently, as a routine part of government operations, and used to construct effective public policy.”

To serve the goal of more data-driven and evidence-based governing,  The GovLab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering this week launched “Solving Public Problems with Data,” a new online course developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

This online lecture series helps those working for the public sector, or simply in the public interest, learn to use data to improve decision-making. Through real-world examples and case studies — captured in 10 video lectures from leading experts in the field — the new course outlines the fundamental principles of data science and explores ways practitioners can develop a data analytical mindset. Lectures in the series include:

  1. Introduction to evidence-based decision-making  (Quentin Palfrey, formerly of MIT)
  2. Data analytical thinking and methods, Part I (Julia Lane, NYU)
  3. Machine learning (Gideon Mann, Bloomberg LP)
  4. Discovering and collecting data (Carter Hewgley, Johns Hopkins University)
  5. Platforms and where to store data (Arnaud Sahuguet, Cornell Tech)
  6. Data analytical thinking and methods, Part II (Daniel Goroff, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation)
  7. Barriers to building a data practice (Beth Blauer, Johns Hopkins University and GovEx)
  8. Data collaboratives (Stefaan G. Verhulst, The GovLab)
  9. Strengthening a data analytic culture (Amen Ra Mashariki, ESRI)
  10. Data governance and sharing (Beth Simone Noveck, NYU Tandon/The GovLab)

The goal of the lecture series is to enable participants to define and leverage the value of data to achieve improved outcomes and equities, reduced cost and increased efficiency in how public policies and services are created. No prior experience with computer science or statistics is necessary or assumed. In fact, the course is designed precisely to serve public professionals seeking an introduction to data science.

Solving Public Problems with Data faculty affiliations. Solving Public Problems with Data faculty affiliations.

Why Now?

The ability to understand and use the ever-growing quantity of new data and new data science techniques is becoming essential to governing in the 21st century. By making it possible to measure past successes, spot present disparities, and predict future performance, data — especially that data collected and published by government — is becoming a key tool for tackling problems in every arena. However, much of the promise of data-driven and evidence-based decision-making has failed to materialize because many who work in public institutions have limited experience turning data into actionable insights. Even those public servants with more quantitative skills often confront legal or technical impediments with data, making it difficult to know how to collect, analyze, use, share, and store data responsibly and ethically.

To be fair, using data is not a panacea. There are legitimate concerns about how to use data, including privacy and data responsibility considerations, issues with bad data, and limitations on access to good data. Still, using data to solve public problems is increasingly becoming the standard for public servants.


Screenshot from the “Solving Public Problems with Data” website.

Who Is This Course For?

“Solving Public Problems with Data” is designed for public entrepreneurs — passionate and innovative people who wish to take advantage of data and new technology to do good in the world. In addition, the course was developed to help practitioners — both inside and outside of government — build their capacity to use data and evidence for policy- and decision-making.

What You Will Learn

Public entrepreneurs will learn the fundamentals of how to:

  • Articulate the value of using data to solve the problems you work on in your job
  • Craft questions and identify the data to answer them to inform your work
  • Understand the data science techniques that can be applied to transform information into insights
  • Identify the benefits and risks of collecting, processing, using, and sharing data
  • Know how others are collecting, using and sharing data responsibly and ethically

How It Works

The new lecture series brings together many of the best minds in the data field to share what they know and help those working to advance the public good — all at no cost, thanks to a generous grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Visitors to the site can access the following resources:

  • Self-Paced Lectures – Watch online lectures at your own pace
  • Curated Readings – Read case studies and recommended readings to further your knowledge on each of the topics
  • Community – Engage in conversations with people like you who are trying to solve similar public problems collecting, using and/or sharing data

image2Video lecture from Amen Ra Mashariki, former Chief Analytics Officer for New York City.

In a nutshell, “Solving Public Problems with Data” is a 101, crash course on data science technologies, data analytics, and methods for trusted data sharing created to help public servants and others become more data-conscious in their perspective and approach to addressing major public challenges. A twin goal of the lecture series is to support a culture of innovation and burgeoning community of public entrepreneurs who strive to positively transform lives by helping their institutions become more evidence-based and data-driven.

To learn more about “Solving Public Problems with Data,” and follow video lectures within the course, visit To learn more about The GovLab, visit