If only American Indians made the NSA heat map

How big data is failing North America's first citizens, the most invisible of all its people.
Crosscut archive image.

Map depicting the percentage of the U.S. population that is Native American by Census District.

How big data is failing North America's first citizens, the most invisible of all its people.

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 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 tool “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 delineated 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 of 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 in 2010, finding that the national rate did jump during the recession, increasing 15.2 percent between 2007 and the first half of 2010. 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.”
But that was another time. Another recession. Before the sequester. We don’t know what happened after. We only know it’s bad.
The lack of near real-time, transparent data is not just limited to unemployment rates. In a few weeks, for example, more provisions of the Affordable Care Act will begin, opening up more Medicaid funding sources for the Indian health system. So a study about the Medicaid expansion to low-income communities of color would be ideal, right? 
The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured used detailed Census data from all 50 states to produce such a report. “While the Medicaid expansion will increase coverage options for all low-income Americans, it will disproportionately impact low-income people of color,” Kaiser said. Indeed the report looked at the impact of Medicaid expansion on Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders. But there was not a word about American Indians and Alaska Natives.
But this is not to single out Kaiser (a note of disclosure, I was a Kaiser Media Fellow in 2010). My point is that if you go down the list, think tank by think tank, Indian Country’s data invisibility is glaring.
Data invisibility matters because policy decisions are often based on what has been measured (I say often because the premise of austerity itself is contradicted by data, but that’s another story). We need to know what programs work, what’s effective. We need hard information to know how American Indians and Alaska Natives are faring during this decade of austerity.


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