Data Analytics Degrees for Public Policy

Our guide to public policy analytics degrees has information on the intersection of data science and policy, and tips on industry applications, jobs, conferences, internships, and more.

Just want the schools? Skip ahead to our annotated list of data-focused public policy programs

Data Science & Analytics in Public Policy

The Role of Data in Public Policy Goals

Data plays an important role in the lives of public policy makers. Data can help answer the following questions:

  • What are the effects (intended or unintended) of our policies on different groups?
  • How much will these policies cost?
  • Can we predict whether this policy will be feasible? Can we really get it done?
  • Will we have buy-in from our stakeholders?

Social media, review sites, search terms, cellphones, the Internet of Things, GIS and drones, CCTV cameras, satellites, traffic sensors—there is a large amount of data now available for policy analysis.

The Role of the Public Policy Data Scientist

Enter the data scientist. These trained pros know how to use statistics, computer science, quantitative methods, and big data tools to create more effective public policies. They meld machine-generated data (e.g. sensors) with citizen-gathered data to predict events. They mine social media and the Internet for behavior patterns. They create beautiful data visualization programs to demonstrate the effects of decisions to politicians. Their findings have major applications in:

  • Infrastructure/Smart Cities (e.g. reducing traffic congestion and vehicle pollution)
  • Law Enforcement (e.g. predicting street violence and reducing crime rates)
  • Public Health (e.g. quashing epidemics before they spread)
  • Government Fraud (e.g. finding tax dodgers)
  • Education (e.g. improving high school graduation rates)
  • Employment (e.g. increasing workforce quality)
  • Housing (e.g. creating permanent housing for the homeless)

Data Trends in Public Policy

You’ll find lots of interesting projects if you’re working on the city and state level. Local governments typically have more flexibility to try new things. We’re talking about developments like:

Prioritizing the Internet of Things (IoT): Though security is always a concern, governments are embedding digital into inanimate objects to improve services and safety. For example, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has created Hydromet, a network of 275 connected sensors that monitors stream flow and posts important data (e.g. temperature, rainfall, humidity, etc.) on a public website. These data are used to send “early warning system” alerts to the cellphones of residents in nearby areas.

Encouraging Public-Private Partnerships: Incubators, transformation teams, and innovation labs are common practice between cities and private partners. For example, under the auspices of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the What Works Cities initiative is helping 100 mid-sized U.S. cities crank up their data capabilities in order to improve services and engage residents. Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Sunlight Foundation are part of the effort.

Hyper-Personalizing Citizen Services: Data science is now being employed to build hyper-personalized services for individual citizens. For example, the NIH’s Precision Medicine Initiative/All of Us is designed to take into account a person’s genetics, microbiomes, environment, and lifestyle in order to develop better and more targeted treatments for diseases (e.g. a customized plan for diabetes or cancer).

There’s also the Information Network of Arkansas (INA)’s Gov2Go tool, a custom-built digital government assistant that reminds Arkansas citizens of important deadlines (e.g. voter registration, property tax payments, car tag renewals and property assessment, etc.).

Employing Behavioral Science: With social analytics and opinion mining, data analytics experts may a.) understand how citizens feel about policy decisions and b.) attempt to predict how they’ll respond to a policy change. For example, the UK Behavioural Insights Team (UK BIT) has been using precepts of behavioral economics theory and psychology to improve services and save money. You can explore many of their ventures on their website.

In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has developed a project called Smart Streets. By analyzing traffic patterns, bicyclist behavior, and pedestrian movements, NUM’s data scientists are learning more about how people are moving through the urban landscape. The ultimate goal is safer pathways.

Studying Public Policy Data Analytics

Public Policy Analytics Degrees

There’s no single degree title for public policy analytics. Instead, universities have created programs that combine courses from public policy schools and computer science departments. A few things to keep in mind when you’re putting together a shortlist:

  • Master of Science (MS) in Public Policy Analytics or Master of Data Science (MDS) in Public Policy programs typically have a strong technical core, with plenty of emphasis on stats, analytics, and quantitative methods. (This is a general rule—there are exceptions.)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA) or Master of Public Policy (MPP) programs will often allow you to customize your curriculum to focus on data analytics electives or concentrations. These programs may not have as many technical courses as MS degrees, so be sure to check the curriculum carefully.

Like MBA degrees, MPA degrees tend to be more focused on administrative issues & decision-making. MPP degrees may have more hands-on courses in analytics and program planning.

Remember, too, that you have the option to pursue a dual degree or a data science degree and customize it to your needs.

Public Policy Analytics Specialties

In the list below, you’ll find degrees that focus on:

  • Technical Expertise/Urban Informatics
  • Leadership
  • Social Policy & Social Good
  • Fiscal Analytics
  • International Policy
  • Government

What to Look For in Analytics Degree Programs

The best degree program is the one that suits your professional goals and your budget. Having said that, there are a few quality markers that may help you make your decision:

  • Public Policy Research Centers: What data science initiatives are faculty working on? Do these initiatives have applications to the real world? Can you see yourself involved in the projects?
  • Public/Private Partnerships: Look for schools that have strong ties with the private sector (and all their cool technologies) and ongoing partnerships with governments (local, state, or federal—depending on your interests).
  • U.S. News & World Report Rankings: In addition to posting overall rankings on Best Graduate Public Affairs Programs, U.S. News also ranks specialties.
  • Internships & Fellowships: Does the university provide you with job training and opportunities to network with future employers?

Public Policy Analysis vs. Public Policy Analytics

The rapid growth of public policy analytics has led to some confusion with the traditional field of public policy analysis. It’s important to mention it here, because you may find public policy analysis programs that don’t have much to do with data science.

Public Policy Analysis is an umbrella term that covers the analysis of existing policies (both past and present) and the formulation of new policies and proposals. Crunching data is part of this process, but public policy makers may also speak with community leaders, assemble historical overviews, devise case studies, debate economic theory, and conduct other forms of qualitative research.

Public Policy Analytics is a technical field that deals specifically with quantitative research and skills such as statistical/data analysis, survey analysis, assembling and processing big data, model building, predictive analytics, and data visualization.

Public Policy Careers for Data Scientists and Data Analysts

Sample Job Titles

If you’re interested in a position with governments, non-profits, or NGOs, try searching for “data scientist” or “data analyst” postings on job boards. You may find public policy expertise and experience listed as key skills. Other job titles that could use your newfound technical expertise include:

  • Policy Analyst: Create policies and strategies, evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of programs, predict outcomes, and share info with the public and decision-makers.
  • Financial Analyst: Analyze financial data, identify trends, assess risks, develop financial forecasts, and project earnings.
  • Urban and Regional Planner/City Planner: Develop short-term and long-term plans for land use, communities, and smart cities.
  • Management Consultant/Analyst: Analyze the structure, efficiency, and financial performance of an organization or project in order to suggest improvements.
  • Project/Program Manager: Plan goals and objectives, marshal resources and people, execute your plans, and assess the performance of one project or group of interdependent projects (i.e. a program).
  • Development Director/Coordinator: Maintain existing revenue streams, identify new sources of income, and launch programs to capitalize on these areas (e.g. grants, gifts, business contributions, capital campaigns, etc.).
  • Operations Management & Research: Conduct internal analyses & planning to assist the executive director with day-to-day operations (e.g. budgeting, strategic planning, HR, communications, research, etc.).

Typical Employers

  • Local, State & Federal Government
  • Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
  • Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
  • Management Consulting Firms
  • Non-Profit Organizations
  • Economic Development Organizations
  • Public Finance Institutions
  • Universities

Public Policy Analytics Resources



Data Analytics Degrees for Public Policy

Last updated: June 2020