Six months ago, David Williams wasn’t anywhere near Harvard. He was in Detroit, working on economic development and land-use issues as a senior aide to Mayor Mike Duggan.
Despite his belief in the effectiveness of the city’s programs, without data and the ability to analyze it, Williams couldn’t be sure that the initiatives were helping residents.
“The question I dealt with was: Are we making these places better?” he said. “How do we know what we’re doing is making people’s lives better? It’s a question we couldn’t answer.”
Then he discovered the work of economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and John Friedman, research that applies big-data tools to massive economic, geographic, and demographic data sets. The results allow analysts to zero in on variables like race, education, and income to see what’s happening on the ground in neighborhoods across the country.
This gives researchers a view of struggling areas ripe for intervention. It also highlights communities where people succeed despite poverty and other challenges, providing examples to be plumbed for new insights.
“I think the potential of applying this kind of research is incredible,” Williams said.
Today, he is doing just that, as policy director for Opportunity Insights. The new research and policy institute is headed by Chetty, the William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics at Harvard; Hendren, a Harvard professor; and Friedman, an associate professor at Brown University.