Dan Walters: California data bank could fill big knowledge gap

dwalters@sacbee.comAugust 18, 2013 

Anyone interested in exploring economic, demographic and other data about California and its communities – yours truly, for example – has had to work at it because there's been no central repository.

One must mine data from federal agencies such as the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from state agencies such as the Employment Development Department, the Department of Education or the Department of Finance, or from private and academic data banks.

But very often these disparate sources use incompatible base lines – such as differing definitions of the state's many regions – that make oranges-to-oranges comparisons difficult, if not impossible.

Thus, the statistical picture of the state has been fragmented, and that means those who fashion public policy, such as legislators and their staffs, are free to use whatever data suit their purposes, and those outside the system, including the media, cannot easily question their numbers.

Likewise, interest groups also use very selective data to persuade politicians and the public that their causes are just, rather than self-serving.

The era of incomplete data about where California is, and where it may be headed, may be ending.

Very soon, a newly created subsidiary of the California Business Roundtable will unveil a free, authoritative, constantly updated, Internet-accessible and interactive repository of economic data, broken down by demographic factors, by county, by legislative districts and by region. Its operators plan to add noneconomic data as the project expands its reach.

The Business Roundtable consists of heads of the state's major employers and corporations, and they obviously have political agendas having to do with business climate.

But Robert Lapsley, the organization's president, says that by creating a separate, nonprofit organization called the Center for Jobs and the Economy, opening the database to free public use and using only data from official sources, he hopes the project's integrity will not be questioned.

This project begins to fill a very important and very long-overdue need for good numbers about the nation's largest state.

So much of public policymaking in California has been based on hype or hope, often with disastrous results, rather than hard facts and logical conclusions.

A more comprehensive database unto itself doesn't prevent that from happening, but it gives outsiders tools to question prevailing – and often self-serving – assumptions. It also provides academic researchers, would-be business investors and the media with the basis for more rational conclusions about where this very large, very diverse and, in some ways, very troubled state is headed.

And better data just might result in better decision-making by those we elect.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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