Frank McCourt Jr.’s (CAS ’75) $100 million donation to develop a new public policy school offers many reasons to celebrate. But one reason — the school’s inclusion of a Massive Data Institute — presents an interesting development: Georgetown is betting on big data.

In recent years, big data, which is the accumulation of massive data files enabled by advanced tracking technology and cutting-edge collection methods, has become a hot-button issue in the private and public sectors. Reliance on big data remains contentious, but if the McCourt School of Public Policy sticks to the interdisciplinary approach that has been promised, the Massive Data Institute has the potential to tap into the university’s tradition of mobilizing campus members to address modern social problems.

The strengths of massive data files are clear: They contain a wealth of untapped information that can inform policy decisions in a quantitative, relatively objective manner. Through rigorous statistical analysis, it is possible to glean empirical results — policy rooted in observation rather than possibly biased judgments. Training policymakers to be literate in big data would bring Georgetown to the forefront of national and international policy conversations.

But in tapping into this trend, the university would do well not to blindly trust data. While data itself may be unbiased, numbers are always subject to interpretation and manipulation, and analysts run the risk of blindly accepting arguments rooted in empirics without full understanding. To avoid this pitfall, Georgetown should remember that its most prestigious professors and researchers have focused on theory rather than quantitative study.

Luckily, Georgetown sits in an ideal position to address the challenge of balancing new and old approaches. Historically, our strengths have been in nuance and taking an interdisciplinary approach. Drawing on a tradition of reflection, the university is equipped to approach modern policy problems in a thoughtful manner.

As with any intellectual trend, Georgetown’s bet on big data contains an element of risk. But if the university sticks to its roots of responsible and thoughtful analysis, McCourt’s investment could certainly pay off.

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