Being digitally invisible: Policy analytics and a new type of digital divide

Citation: Longo, J., Kuras, E., Smith, H., Hondula, D. M. and Johnston, E. (2017), Technology Use, Exposure to Natural Hazards, and Being Digitally Invisible: Implications for Policy Analytics. Policy & Internet. Early View doi:10.1002/poi3.144

Policy analytics involves the combination of new data sources – e.g., from mobile smartphones, Internet of Everything (IoE) devices, and electronic payment cards – with new data analytics techniques for informing and directing public policy.

The concept of the digital divide has been around for some time now. Whether it focusses on basic ownership and access to digital tools, or the ability to use them effectively, the digital divide means that some people are not able to send information into or receive information across digital channels. If you haven’t got a computer, you can’t tweet about it.

The access part of the digital divide has diminished in recent years (mostly because of the falling cost of technology needed to get online, and efforts by corporations and governments to put mobile technology into people’s hands at low or no upfront costs), but the broader concept of who is represented online is still of concern to researchers and policymakers.

With the rise of new data sources (often referred to as “big data”) driving the possibilities for policy analytics, work undertaken at the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University in early 2015 came to focus on those who do not use or own devices like smartphones, IoE devices and transaction cards.

We explored the possibility that people may be rendered digitally invisible if the signals from their daily actions are not generated or captured because they don’t carry the devices that “big data” presumes, and therefore don’t figure into policy analytics. Failing to observe the lived experience of those outside the “big data” world may result in policy analytics being biased, and policy interventions being misdirected as a result.

With my CPI colleagues Evan Kuras, Holly Smith, Dave Hondula, and Erik Johnson, we set out to determine whether the concept of the digitally invisible could be shown empirically by conducting an exploratory study with the participation of homeless individuals in Phoenix and the Phoenix Rescue Mission, in the context of extreme heat exposure.

The results of that work have been published in a special issue of the journal Policy & InternetIf you don’t have access to the online version at the publisher, the published version can be accessed here.

Do the digitally invisible exist? Perhaps surprising to some, homeless individuals in the United States have very good coverage in terms of mobile phone usage (this is partly a result of government programs, and partly because a mobile phone becomes a crucial technology when you don’t have a fixed addess). And public libraries and other access points provide computer resources and Internet access, leveling the digital playing field and lowering cost barriers.

Yet policy analytics is based not on active participation, as is the focus of the digital divide literature, but instead is based on passive data contributions (through “big data”). We think this is the key idea that distinguishes digitally invisible from the digital divide.

For those without a smartphone, without a bank account or credit card, without regular and ubiquitous Internet-connected computer access, living beneath and beyond the network of sensors, monitors and data capture points, their existence is being rendered increasingly invisible, with policy developed using a policy analytics approach biased against them, even if unintentionally. As a result, policymaking is blind to their existence and policy based on incomplete evidence will not reflect their reality.

We’re at the early stages of the policy analytics movement. But we argue that a contextual awareness and humility should guide the developing policy analytics approach, understanding that it offers only a partial picture of a reality that is influenced by the values we bring to the analysis. We recommend being vigilant in looking for those who are hidden and will do the same in our future work.

We look forward to your comments.


Using GitHub in Government: A Look at a New Collaboration Platform

Citation: Longo, J., & Kelley, T. M. (2016). GitHub use in public administration in Canada: Early experience with a new open collaboration tool. Canadian Public Administration. Vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 598–623.

(this blog post also published by the Center for Policy Informatics)

In late 2014, as a postdoc in open governance in the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University, I became interested in the potential for using GitHub to facilitate collaboration on text documents. This was largely inspired by the 2012 TED Talk by Clay Shirky where he argued that open source programmers could teach us something about how to do open governance:

Somebody put up a tool during the copyright debate last year in the Senate, saying, “It’s strange that Hollywood has more access to Canadian legislators than Canadian citizens do. Why don’t we use GitHub to show them what a citizen-developed bill might look like?” 

If you’re not familiar with it, GitHub is a web-based project hosting service, principally used for distributed version control of software and website development projects. It has enjoyed rapid growth since its debut in 2008 and, with over 14 million users and over 35 million project repositories (as of April 2016), it is the largest source-code host on the Internet.

In 2014, increasing attention was being paid to the use of GitHub as a platform for document collaboration, with the possibility that it could serve to revolutionize the practice of knowledge sharing within organizations and be a mechanism for open governance.

Along with my CPI colleague Tanya Kelley (now a postdoc at the University of Michigan), and the support of CPI Director Erik Johnston, we set out to understand how GitHub was being used in public sector organizations in Canada, and how it might be used in future.

We placed GitHub within the context of the existing literature on software approaches to collaborative work and the idea of collaboration generally in public sector settings.

During the research and writing, the Brookings Institution TechTank published a series of three blog posts (starting here) where we speculated on what tools like GitHub might mean for public sector organizations.

For this research, we undertook a census of Canadian government and public servant accounts on GitHub and surveyed those users, supplemented by interviews with key government technology leaders.

This research has now been published in the journal Canadian Public Administration. (If you don’t have access to the full document through the publisher, you can also find it here).

Despite the growing enthusiasm for GitHub (mostly from those familiar with open source software development), and the general rhetoric in favour of collaboration, we suspected that getting GitHub used in public sector organizations for text collaboration might be an uphill battle – not least of which because of the steep learning curve involved in using GitHub, and its inflexibility when being used to edit text.

The history of computer-supported collaborative work platforms is littered with really cool interfaces that failed to appeal to users. The experience to date with GitHub in Canadian governments reflects this, as far as our research shows.

We found few government agencies having an active presence on GitHub compared to social media presence in general. And while federal departments and public servants on GitHub are rare, provincial, territorial, First Nations and local governments are even rarer.

For individual accounts held by public servants, most were found in the federal government at higher rates than those found in broader society (see Mapping Collaborative Software). Within this small community, the distribution of contributions per user follows the classic long-tail distribution with a small number of contributors responsible for most of the work, a larger number of contributors doing very little on average, and many users contributing nothing.

GitHub is still resisted by all but the most technically savvy. With a peculiar terminology and work model that presupposes a familiarity with command line computer operations and the language of software coding, using GitHub presents many barriers to the novice user. But while it is tempting to dismiss GitHub, as it currently exists, as ill-suited as a collaboration tool to support document writing, it holds potential as a useful platform for facilitating collaboration in the public sector.

As an example, to help understand how GitHub might be used within governments for collaboration on text documents, we discuss a briefing note document flow in the paper (see the paper for a description of this lovely graphic).


A few other findings are addressed in the paper, from why public servants may choose not to collaborate even though they believe it’s the right thing to do, to an interesting story about what propelled the use of GitHub in the government of Canada in the first place.

This was a fun paper to write, even though it is probably the end of my interest in GitHub specifically (the main finding being “there is no there there”). Nonetheless, we look forward to your comments.

CfGS Seminar Series: At the intersection of beliefs, values, opinions, evidence and facts

This presentation, along with my co-author CfGS Sr. Research Associate Rod Dobell, featured a discussion of our paper: “At the intersection of beliefs, values, opinions, evidence and facts: can policy informatics act as an honest traffic cop?” 

WHEN: Wednesday, August 6, 2014, 10:30-noon
ROOM: University of Victoria, Sedgewick C168 (large boardroom)

Abstract: Policy informatics is an emerging sub-discipline of policy studies built on the idea that complex public policy challenges can be effectively addressed through the leveraging of computational and communication technologies that improve data collection, enhance analysis, harness knowledge in support of decision making, facilitate informed deliberation and provide mechanisms for rational collective action. At the core of the policy informatics movement are several premises, including that: information can be efficiently and effectively mobilized to support evidence-driven analysis and policy design; the objective of evidence-based analysis should be to better inform deliberation and decision making; and a new form of open, public governance that is transparent, collaborative, participatory and perceived as legitimate can be realized.

Recent research and experience seems to indicate, however: that the evaluation of evidence is strongly influenced by ones beliefs, values and attitudes; that confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning are powerful and hidden psychological forces influencing our judgment and receptivity to evidence; and that cultural identity is a strong motivator when considering evidence.

Despite the objectives of policy informatics, it appears that “facts” rarely succeed in changing the recipient’s beliefs, position or decision. If these findings are true, they would seem to undermine the founding principles of policy informatics, or at least question the relevance of policy informatics in political debate and decision making. We review the explanations of the current state of evidence-based deliberation, argumentation and decision making and propose methods for effectively informing deliberation in the context of these explanations, and suggest a recalibration of the objectives for policy informatics that better reflect the social, political and psychological underpinnings of decision making.


The slide deck for our talk is available here.

Raw video recording: 

The draft paper (to be developed further over the coming months with colleagues in the Center for Policy Informatics Lab at Arizona State University) will be available here shortly.

Computer-Supported Policy Analysis, Past and Future

In a recent draft paper (available here, and below), I’ve speculated that enterprise collaboration systems in government can serve to expand the notion of who in government can contribute to policy analysis; and that open data can expand the idea of policy analysis to those working outside of government.

Comments are welcome from any reader. Note that this draft is currently under review and is intended for: Parson, Edward A. (ed.). forthcoming. A Fine Balance: Expertise, Evidence and Democracy in Policy and Governance, 1960-2011. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Continue reading

Final Official Version of Dissertation

My dissertation “Towards Policy Analysis 2.0” has been formally published on the University of Victoria DSpace.

The abstract and link to the full document pdf can be found at

Suggested citation:

Longo, Justin. 2013. Towards Policy Analysis 2.0. PhD dissertation, University of Victoria. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI. (Publication No. AAT *******.)

Seminar Presentation – Friday September 14 2012

“Contemporary Practice in Policy Analysis in the British Columbia Government”
Frank, Friendly, Fearless Friday Seminar Series
University of Victoria – School of Public Administration
Friday September 14, 2012 – 2:30pm
Tom Shoyama Boardroom, HSD A373

Abstract: Policy-making is hard, and it can often be made harder still when the issue or environment is complex. Profound uncertainty, rapid emergence and multiple issue interconnectedness are some of the features of a complex policy environment that challenge public policy makers. One approach to dealing with complexity in a public policy context is horizontality, the act of working across the various ministries and divisions of a government in order to harness the organization’s capacity and resources and direct them towards the solving of the complex problem. And one prominent mechanism for meeting the horizontality challenge is the promotion of greater organization-wide collaboration, knowledge sharing and active knowledge seeking amongst a network of knowledge workers. The emergence of Web 2.0 tools and approaches has raised the possibility that we have entered a new knowledge management era – Enterprise 2.0 – that can address the horizontality problem, facilitate the sharing of knowledge across government and promote transformative governance. Based on semi-structured interviews with policy analysts as members of corporate policy units, and a web-survey of 129 practising policy analysts in the Government of British Columbia, this research is aimed at the question of how governments can deal with the challenge of policy complexity by supporting horizontal policy formulation, and what barriers might stand in the way of the sharing of knowledge and efforts by public servants to collaborate with colleagues. From the web-based survey and the interview data, it appears that attitudes (which measures what the respondents’ values and experience tell them is the right thing to do), followed by norms (measured as what respondents hear from their colleagues and superiors as being important) were the strongest and most consistent predictors of the intention to collaborate and share knowledge. A third measure – perceived behavioural control – was weakest, indicating that while policy analysts may believe and be told that knowledge sharing and collaboration are the optimal path, they may not feel they have the authority or latitude to do so. It also appears that a policy analyst’s organizational social network is instrumental in being able to locate knowledge sources and collaboration opportunities outside of their immediate location. But there was little evidence that technology networks to date play a prominent role in facilitating a knowledge organization; in fact, the data indicate that policy analysts may refrain from sharing knowledge with colleagues using technology networks in order to avoid contributing to their colleagues’ information overload. The significance of the present findings lies in the implications for public sector organizations to provide support for knowledge workers to make effective use of the social network, technology and organizational capacity to jointly solve problems. The results point towards strategies for organizational leaders to promote and support a knowledge organization, and towards tools for policy unit managers and individual policy analysts to navigate the challenge of responding to complex policy issues in a world of too much information and not enough knowledge. Caution is advised that attempts to impose knowledge management technology solutions may face significant barriers where the organizational culture is not aligned with open knowledge sharing and collaboration. The potential power of organizational social networks to bridge between the organization’s various sub-cultures is one possible path for helping to build the knowledge organization.

By Justin Longo Posted in Papers

Computer-Supported Policy Analysis and the Future of the Profession

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I am involved in organizing a symposium and publication project reflecting on the career of my long-time supervisor and mentor Dr. Rod Dobell.

I had originally meant to stay in the shadows, but I will now be presenting an original paper with the super-long title of “From Massive Mainframes to Massive Data, Databanks to #OpenData, ‘As We May Think’ to Thinking Machines: Computer-Supported Policy Analysis and the Future of Practice.” This will be delivered at the symposium on August 20 2011.

The draft paper is a high-level survey of the application of computer technology in support of the policy analysis function in western governments over the post-World War II period, and points to possible future implications for practicing policy analysts arising from continuing technological developments and as the consequence of three emerging phenomena: the massive data era, the open data movement (something I’ve written on recently) and anticipated advances in artificial intelligence.

It is a very rough working draft, but the basic ideas have been set out. If you’re interested, it can be found here. Comments are really appreciated.