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“What this track has given me is an analytical approach to systemic injustice. I can now think of problems related to race and class and income from a more scientific point of view.”

Amruta Trivedi

MPA Students Learn To Use Data To Improve Social Policies

March 22, 2016

When it comes to improving public policy, MPA student Amruta Trivedi has a healthy respect for the veracity of data: “It is very hard for numbers to lie.” Using the right data intelligently, she says, makes a problem very hard to misrepresent or ignore and the right policy for addressing it easier to formulate.

A cognitive science major from the University of California, Berkley, Trivedi has a particular interest in mass incarceration and criminal justice, and eventually wants to work “in an evidence-based policy sphere where we can think about large-scale change from a data-driven perspective.”

That’s why she elected to pursue the data-driven Policy specialization, one of several areas of focus offered by Brown’s one-year MPA program at the Watson Institute. (Others include international security, urban policy, and sustainability.) Focusing on economics and data science, the data-driven policy specialization enables students to acquire both the ideas and the skills necessary to improve policy in an increasingly data- and research-driven world.

Trivedi is one of a dozen or so students who have been working closely with economists Justine Hastings and Emily Oster at the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab (RIIPL). At RIIPL, students work on a variety of projects for government agencies across the state, sharpening their data and research skills and applying their policy knowledge to pressing issues such as early education and maternal health.

Hastings, director of RIIPL, also directs the data-driven specialization. Students in this specialization build their quantitative and analytic skills in a series of courses, including advanced economics courses on policy issues ranging from poverty to environmental protection, behavioral economics, data science, computing, and econometrics. 

The students’ work at RIIPL fulfills the requirement for a 12-week “policy-in-action” consultancy, which provides practical immersion with a client in an institutional or community-based setting, whether global or domestic. This requirement, which complements the core coursework, reflects the MPA program’s emphasis on experiential learning and on the application of academic training to real-world problems.

Using policy to move the needle on social justice

Trivedi, a member of the first cohort, chose Brown’s program in part because it’s so new. “I think we have the opportunity to shape the culture of the program,” she says, adding that “the faculty have been very responsive” to students’ suggestions.

The other reason she’s here is because she felt her interest in social justice matched Brown’s ethos. Following a post-graduation internship at NPR, where she reported on perceptions of race and ethnicity, Trivedi says she decided to go into public policy “because I wanted to work on something more actionable. I chose Brown because of the strong legacy it has with social justice and political activism.”

Classmate Mintaka Angell ’15 agrees. “As an undergrad I studied the history of science and medicine, how scientific inquiry has shaped perceptions of minorities in ways that are codified into medical law and scientific practice. This got me interested in and engaged with issues of criminal justice, mass incarceration, and the devastating effects of income inequality. Brown’s commitment to social justice definitely informs this program,” she says.

Angell, too, is pursuing the data-driven policy specialization. “I had a great qualitative background, but I didn't have any quantitative skills, which are necessary in the policy environment today,” she says. “I want to address issues of social justice and institutionalized inequality by melding the quantitative with the qualitative.”

Angell and Trivedi both traveled to Sweden last August as part of the required global policy experience. (Brown’s MPA program is the only one in the country to require international experience of all its students.) There they spent almost two weeks studying the health care and criminal justice systems. Other students traveled to India or Brazil.

The two students are now in the final weeks of their consultancy at RIIPL, where Angell worked with the Department of Human Services on food insecurity and Trivedi worked with the Department of Health on public programs to help low-income mothers make smarter investments in health and human capital for their children. Each is part of a different team, and the teams will soon write recommendations to their respective “clients” based on their research.

Both describe Hastings and Oster as empowering mentors and role models. Trivedi says they’ve learned to think about real human behaviors instead of what we think they should be – and how that should inform policy.

“You think or hope humans behave one way, but if you consider how they actually behave – in ways that are not most efficient or easiest – it will move your policy in another direction,” she explains. “What this track has given me is an analytical approach to systemic injustice. I can now think of problems related to race and class and income from a more scientific point of view.”

Angell, who plans to pursue a career in evidence-based policy analysis after graduating this May, says the data specialization and her work at RIIPL have shown her the power of reliable metrics and evaluation techniques to leverage substantial improvement in people's lives.

“Changing political climates means there may not always be more money for the social safety nets that keep many families afloat. At RIIPL, we've been working to make sure that the money that is there works harder and smarter for the vulnerable communities it serves. That's an improvement that I think everyone can get on board with.”

- Sarah C. Baldwin