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Elections 2012: Driven by data? Make it so in Indian Country Too

One of the narratives of this campaign was how Team Obama was driven by data.

One of the narratives of this campaign was how Team Obama was driven by data.

In Time magazine, Michael Schere, wrote: “In late spring, the backroom number crunchers who powered Barack Obama's campaign to victory noticed that George Clooney had an almost gravitational tug on West Coast females ages 40 to 49. The women were far and away the single demographic group most likely to hand over cash, for a chance to dine in Hollywood with Clooney — and Obama. So as they did with all the other data collected, stored and analyzed in the two-year drive for re-election, Obama's top campaign aides decided to put this insight to use. They sought out an East Coast celebrity who had similar appeal among the same demographic, aiming to replicate the millions of dollars produced by the Clooney contest.” They picked Sara Jessica Parker. “And so the next Dinner with Barack contest was born: a chance to eat at Parker's West Village brownstone.”

This level of detail in a political campaign and then driving decisions based on that information is unprecedented.

It also represents the single most effective thing that President Obama could do to improve the delivery of services to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

There’s a data mess in Indian country that needs cleaning up, organizing, and bucks so that it actually makes sense. Just fixing this one thing – real, accurate, timely data – could drive decisions forward that improve people’s lives on reservations, villages and in urban areas.

I could use education, health metrics, really a lot of current problems, as an example of what we don’t know. But let’s focus on employment. This was one of the key issues in this election because nation’s unemployment rate, stuck around 8 percent. We know for absolute certainty that Indian country’s rate is much higher.

But what is the number for Indian country? No one knows.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is supposed to keep track, actually, is required to do so under law. But it hasn’t happened since 2005 in part because the data is such a mess. That last report pegged unemployment at 49 percent nationally, but none of the information could be compared to other unemployment reports because the methodology is so different.

The BIA said it would have a new report in the summer of 2010. But in July announced it would not “release the 2010 Indian Population and Labor Force Report because of methodology inconsistencies.”

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In a letter to tribal leaders, (at the time) acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Del Laverdure wrote: “The measurements of population and employment statistics on American Indians and Alaska Natives have always been difficult to obtain.”

However, he said, the next labor force survey would be better and meet the standards for data collection that’s used by other federal agencies.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics would be a natural home for such data collection. But it doesn’t keep track either because the American Indians and Alaska Natives are such a small population cohort (meaning it would have to survey way more people to make the information accurate).

The most useful, because it’s so complete, is the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. It’s older information, but a good peek. Only one thing: It’s about to go away because it’s not in the budget.

“The Appropriations Bill eliminates the Economic Census, which measures the health of our economy. It terminates the American Community Survey, which produces the social and demographic information that monitors the impact of economic trends on communities throughout the country,” wrote former Census Director Robert Groves.

“Modern societies need current, detailed social and economic statistics; the U.S. is losing them,” he said.

That’s especially true in this economy. Transparency has both an economic and political value. And the flip side of that is true, as well, unreliable information limits funding opportunities and political support.

Indian country needs real time, reliable data. Don’t some of those data folks on Team Obama need a job?

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: