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Data for decision makers

Stephanie Pollack

Self-proclaimed “data geeks” descended upon Northeastern’s campus recently for a conference focusing on the use of data to support communities and advance societal change. The university’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs teamed up with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and the Boston Foundation’s Boston Indicators Project to host the event in late January.

In one of several “how-to” workshops, Stephanie Pollack, assistant director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy at Northeastern, explained the significance of data in the decision making process of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), the system of subways, buses and trains that affects a wide-reaching population across the state.

The MBTA recently announced plans to increase fares and reduce service coverage in response to a $161 million budget shortfall. Pollack’s talk presented a host of data suggesting that neither of the two proposed options will fix the underlying financial issues.

“The MBTA,” she said, “actually has four financial problems: It can’t pay its operating budget, it can’t pay its debt, it doesn’t have enough money to fix the system, and it has basically nothing at this point to expand the system.”

Last fall, the Dukakis Center, in conjunction with other members of a coalition called Transportation for Massachusetts, issued a so-called primer on Massachusetts’s transportation finance entitled “Maxed Out.”

The effort, Pollack said, was an attempt to navigate the T’s complex financial issues, help politicians and policymakers understand them and make this data accessible to the general public — including those who will now be directly affected by changes in the system. She also noted that MBTA data is much more accessible today than it was in the 80s when she began her Massachusetts transportation finance work.

Throughout the day, other workshops and presentations highlighted the benefits individuals and communities can reap from collecting and interpreting available data. Sessions focused on topics like data-mapping concepts, developing community surveys and using health data to assess community health risks.

In welcoming remarks, Barry Bluestone, dean of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, noted that data — particularly in the digital era — could deliver powerful messages. He pointed to the “1% vs. 99%” figures used in the national Occupy movement.

“What you will learn today is how to use data in creative ways,” he said.