Georgetown University initiated a data collective in collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to improve equity in the civil justice system, especially in light of the expired national moratorium on eviction.
Georgetown has partnered with AWS and is using their strategy of “Working Backwards,” or working from a customer perspective in order to understand an issue and develop a solution, to create a “Civil Justice Data Commons,” a collection of quantitative demographic and financial data from civil courts across the country.
While experts have completed extensive data analysis on various aspects of criminal justice proceedings, such as demographic trends, there is a severe lack of data on civil cases, according to Amy O’Hara, a research professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, who pioneered the data collective.
“There is a movement trying to improve access to judgements,” O’Hara said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “You don’t see enough articles in the newspaper about consumer debt or evictions because there’s just not data like there is on the criminal side, and we should try to tackle that.”
The goal of the data commons is to allow local governments across the nation to use data from civil cases to improve transparency and accountability as it relates to civil justice proceedings across the country, according to O’Hara.
“Our hope is that you would be able to look at multiple jurisdictions to see where other interventions have succeeded or failed, and to be able to translate that into your area,” O’Hara said.
Moving forward, the project team hopes to focus on eviction as it relates to civil cases, especially as the national eviction moratorium comes to an end, according to Eva Rosen, assistant professor at the McCourt School.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act first created a national eviction moratorium in March 2020. After the original moratorium expired July 31, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attempted to reestablish the eviction pause with an Aug. 3 order. The renewal was subsequently blocked by the Supreme Court on Aug. 26, leaving an estimated 3.5 million people at risk of eviction.
In October 2020, Rosen and Brian McCabe, an associate professor of sociology in the
College at Georgetown, compiled data from the Washington, D.C. court system to track eviction filings and formal evictions from 2014 to 2018 as part of a separate project.
The report of their findings revealed that one out of nine D.C. renters are impacted by the eviction process, and a high concentration of evictions occur in Wards 7 and 8, where many Black and low-income residents live.
“With housing instability and eviction concentrated in majority-Black neighborhoods located in Ward 7 and Ward 8, addressing housing inequality is an issue central to racial justice in Washington, DC,” the report reads.
Wards 7 and 8 only account for a quarter of rentals throughout D.C., but they account for almost 57% of evictions, according to the report.
The team is working to collect data available under public record laws; however, data collections tend to be disaggregated and difficult to sift through, according to O’Hara.
“We’re trying to facilitate access to the data so that you can do quantitative research and access more from multiple courts and multiple years,” O’Hara said.
The project began several years ago, when McCourt conducted interviews with people in the legal field to see where there was a need for a public data commons. However, the team initially lacked a clear goal to inform their vision for accessible data, O’Hara said.
However, now that they have implemented the “Working Backwards” strategy, the team can think critically about what data would be most valuable and how to present it, according to O’Hara.
“Working Backwards helps you think about how you would then approach the problem in order to build the right solution,” O’Hara said. “So they prodded us along and had us ask lots of questions and then come up with the answers to those questions which was really useful when you’re considering product design.”
Georgetown’s data commons will allow policymakers to easily gather data about issues like eviction, and eventually to enact change, according O’Hara.
“Whether you are a nonprofit or a policymaker, being able to see what’s happening across sights and being able to draw inferences that might inform what you’re going to do on the ground is vital,” O’Hara said.