An article and an op-ed from today's New York Times that were seemingly unrelated got me thinking. The first article was on Dr. Larry Brilliant's change in direction at Google.org (their philanthropic effort). The op-ed by Kenneth Duberstein focused in on the need for a centralized state of the union in data that he proposes be run out of the National Academies.
While these are seemingly very different topics, I see a great deal of possible relation. The State of the U.S.A. project has been percolating for the last year, that I know of, in many Washington, DC, circles. While I think there are many things that make sense about the project as I understand it - timely, relevant data - I am concerned about the ability of the National Academies to find means in which they can reach the people of the United States, not just the policy wonks and data-obsessed. That is where my mind jumped to Google and some of the amazing things they have done in the last year with Google Flu Trends, and I began hoping the Google might somehow launch down the path of helping countries to set up their own Google Country Trends-type of platform. Real-time data, drawn from other people's series as well as Google data, that countries could help to define and Google would help to bring to the people. At the heart of what Dr. Brilliant's article said was that Google was trying to find ways to bring its philanthropic efforts back inside the house and relevant to their business work.
While I am on the subject, I have some concerns about whether having a State of the U.S.A. will actually give us the detail needed to make decisions. So many of these decisions are made at the state and local level, but much of the data which the State of the U.S.A. would inevitably use would not be available at the sub-national level. It's a real problem for many of our data series, one that I've particularly learned about from Andy Reamer at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. There is little doubt that the National Academies brings the best in the country together in a non-partisan way (Connie Citro does amazing work with the Committee on National Statistics), but Google, or their type of real-time data interface, is something that I doubt the National Academies could achieve, at least unaided.