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Data-driven decisions

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

DETROIT—Over the next few weeks we are going to hear a lot about data-driven decisions.

The Detroit Works Long Term Planning Project will be holding what it calls community conversations on the strategies for development it has generated.

Public schools will be counting children, teachers, attendance and class size. Tests and “measures of accountability” are being planned for charter and public schools. Dizzying amounts of data are being put on power points, newsletters and Web sites to convince Detroiters that we have no alternative but to go along with the direction set by the corporate-foundation-government elite.

Data is being massaged and manipulated to provide the illusion of inevitable, rational decision-making. We are told that it is data driving decisions, not the interests of a small group of people.

Nowhere is this clearer than the oft-repeated comment by Mayor Dave Bing and his long term planning foundation sponsored partners. They tell us Detroit simply cannot afford to provide services to “high vacancy” areas. The basis of this idea comes from calculating the total cost of services in one year and dividing by the number of people using that service. Obviously, in this kind of calculation, high vacancy areas will cost more.

The problem here is not with the arithmetic, but with the calculation itself. Why does anyone think it is meaningful to add up how much something costs and divide it by the number of users? What does that tell us? Certainly, in terms of public services, it gives little insight into any real cost or benefits. For example, why is the calculation based on a single year? Doesn’t it make at least as much sense that we should weigh calculations of this sort over time? How do we account for the person who has paid taxes for police and fire services for 40 years? Or what if we calculate actual use of some public services? In general, police and fire are more central to “low vacancy” areas than to the single house on an otherwise open block.

This sort of superficial calculation becomes a baseline from which all other decisions are then rationalized. It is designed to give the impression of neutrality and objectivity. It is intended to obscure interests and values that really underline the “reshaping” of Detroit.

Data in Detroit is not neutral. It is not a substitute for discussion. Formulas should not supplant judgment.

Last year, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts used a data-driven formula to determine what schools he would close. He announced that one of the first schools to go would be Catherine Ferguson Academy. When challenged about this decision, the only rationale this emergency manager could give was that CFA fell below the cut-off line for cost of pupil ratio. Even after a national outcry about the foolishness of closing one of the premiere public schools in the country, Roberts clung to his calculus. He was quite simply unable to exercise judgment when values, ideas and data that were not in his formula were introduced into the decision-making process.

The decisions in front of us are not self- evident. They cannot and should not be determined by data. Data itself must be questioned in terms of the values and assumptions that produced it.

There are very different visions of the kind of city we will have. Those visions reflect values that have yet to be discussed in any meaningful way. The mayor-corporate-foundation elite envision a Detroit that is richer, whiter and a protected place for business and pleasure.

Many of us have a very different vision. We believe Detroit is becoming a city of creative, value-based living that can sustain all of its people in a more productive future. Data will not determine the outcome.

Contact Shea Howell at

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