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
- Social Policy & Social Good
- Fiscal Analytics
- International Policy
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.).
- Local, State & Federal Government
- Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
- Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
- Management Consulting Firms
- Non-Profit Organizations
- Economic Development Organizations
- Public Finance Institutions
Public Policy Analytics Resources
- Data for Good Exchange (D4GX)
- Data for Policy Conference
- Data Science for Social Good Conference – University of Chicago
Data Analytics Degrees for Public Policy
Last updated: June 2020
Arizona State University
The MPP in Policy Informatics is designed to ground you in public policy analysis & research before exposing you to issues surrounding technology. Overall, the MPP is a 42-credit program: 30 hours of the required core courses, 9 hours of concentration courses (Introduction to Policy Informatics, e-Public Administration, and Complexity in Public Policy & Management), and an elective. If you’re in love with urban policy, it’s helpful to know that this MPP emphasizes the needs of cities.
Applicants are expected to have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university. ASU also wants to see a basic statistics course and an American government-related course (earning a B or higher) on your undergraduate transcript. If you don’t have these requirements, you’ll need to take related classes by the end of your first semester of study. GRE scores are the norm, though waivers are available (e.g. you already hold a master’s).
Graduate Certificate in Policy Informatics
The graduate certificate boils down the MPP into 4 essential courses plus 1 elective (15 credit hours total). As you might imagine, you’ll be studying areas such as IT applications, management of information systems, data visualization, behavioral economics, etc. You’ll be expected to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and to have no more than one grade below a B- to complete the certificate program.
Carnegie Mellon University
CMU’s MSPPM-DA is a serious technical degree. If you’re looking for hard-core work in data science, as well as training in public policy leadership and customer relations, this is the program for you. There are 2 years to this degree. In the first year, core coursework emphasizes analytic & quantitative tools and communication and management skills. In the second year, you can choose from all kinds of fascinating electives (e.g. data mining & machine learning, econometrics, smart cities, GIS, public finance—the list goes on!). You’ll also be required to complete a summer internship between the first and second years.
CMU expects to see your undergraduate transcripts, GRE or GMAT scores, résumé, recommendations, and essays. Applicants must have a quantitative background, but CMU does offer a Quantitative Skills Summer Program (QSSP) for students who need to complete college-level courses in advanced algebra, pre-calculus, and statistics.
Claremont Graduate University
Aimed at globetrotting policy analysts (public or private), this unique program is offered by CGU’s Department of International Studies. It’s intended to equip you with the skills needed for high-level political decisions—think big data, data analytics, social analytics, advanced modeling and simulation, etc. The 1.5 year program consists of 36 units—16 units of core coursework; 8 units of electives (e.g. security, international political economy, foreign policy, computational analytics, and health); and 12 units in advanced research methods. Once you’re enrolled, you’ll find plenty of research opportunities.
The School of Social Science, Policy & Evaluation is affiliated with the TransResearch Consortium, an initiative devoted to helping businesses and government entities negotiate relations between the U.S., China, India, and the EU. And faculty at Claremont’s centers & institutes are doing intriguing work in the fields of neuroeconomics, social issues, leadership, and economic policy.
CGU will want to see your undergraduate transcripts, résumé, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.
Smack dab in the heart of Washington D.C., Georgetown is a good place to be if you fancy the federal government! Over 2 years of full-time study, you’ll complete 39 credits. Most of those credits will be in core courses such as accelerated statistics, microeconomics, policy process, big data, data analytics, data visualization, and data ethics. 6 credits are open for electives.
In your first two semesters, you’ll also be expected to attend non-credit “Data Science in Action” seminars. Love raw data? MCourt School has its very own Massive Data Institute (MDI). Here faculty conduct research into areas like international migration, personalized medicine, and the environment. MDI has also partnered with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation on an extensive Data for Social Good effort.
Applicants to the MDSPP program are typically recent college graduates with a solid background in statistics, economics, mathematics, or computer science. You will need to have completed a college-level calculus course and have experience with statistics and computer science. GRE scores are strongly preferred..
John Hopkins University
This flexible degree is geared toward the working professional. Although the program will provide you with a solid grounding in statistical analysis and the opportunity to specialize in a data science area, you don’t need to have a background in quantitative methods. Good news if you’re in a public policy job and you need to improve your technical expertise!
The 12-course MS is available online or through evening classes, and it can be completed in 2 years. There are 5 core courses devoted to stats, quantitative methods, and big data applications; the electives can include anything from data mining and machine learning to global security and economics. You can also choose to pursue a concentration in statistical analysis, geospatial analysis, political behavior and policy analysis, or public management. A capstone is required.
You’ll be required to submit your undergraduate transcripts (minimum 3.0 GPA), a statement of purpose, a research-focused writing sample, recommendations, and your résumé. Students with graduate-level coursework from an accredited college or university may be exempt from taking up to 2 courses towards degree completion. As we mentioned, no prior coursework in quantitative methods is necessary.
Graduate Certificate in Government Analytics
Like the MS, this 5-course graduate certificate is aimed at the busy professional. You’ll take 2 core courses in quantitative methods, statistical analysis, and public policy, and 3 electives in data focused disciplines (e.g. machine learning & neural networks, data mining & predictive analytics, etc.). JHU recommends that you choose to concentrate on one of the same four specialty areas as the MS (see above).
New York University
Run by NYU’s Center for Urban Science + Progress (CUSP), this technical MS uses New York City as its own living laboratory and classroom. The focus, of course, is urban data science—using informatics to tackle challenges in transit, energy, utilities, public health, and so on.
Looking for flexibility? The 30-credit degree comes as a 1-year, full-time program or a 2-year, part-time program. You’ll have 18 credits of core coursework in data realms (e.g. urban informatics, spatial analytics, applied data science, etc.) and 12 credits of electives. You’ll also be required to complete labs, an, and the Urban Science Intensive (USI), a major 2-semester capstone project. And you can participate in the optional Global Data Dive in a smart city around the world..
Applicants must have an undergraduate degree. GRE or GMAT scores are standard, but may be waived in certain circumstances.
This 1-year Advanced Certificate is a condensed version of the MS. It’s a 12-credit, four course program that includes a required course in urban informatics and options for electives or the USI. This is the kind of qualification intended for folks who have already done graduate work in urban informatics, or those with a bachelor’s degree and work experience who want to learn the capabilities of urban informatics. Students in MS programs at NYU, NYU-Poly, or with one of CUSP’s University Partners can also tack it onto their degree
Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs is one of the few schools to offer a degree devoted to urban informatics & data science (NYU is another). It’s a solid technical degree with a data science core, and students work closely with Boston city representatives on urban projects.
The MSUI is offered on campus, online, or in a hybrid format. It’s available part-time or full-time, and you’ll be expected to complete 32 semester hours. The curriculum includes core courses in data science, methods & urban applications (e.g. GIS), and analysis (e.g. spatial analysis). A capstone or research practicum, and a portfolio of real-world projects are also required.
You should have your transcripts, résumé, recommendation letters,and personal statement ready for the application.
Run by Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies (SPS), the MPPA is deliberately focused on creating public policy leaders in government, non-profit organizations, and the private sector. We’re talking a combo of intermediate analytics work and lots of managerial & administrative training.
There are 9 core courses in public policy (e.g. finance & budgeting, microeconomics, organization theory etc.) and analysis (e.g. stats, analytics methods, etc.). In the data analytics specialization, you can choose 2 targeted electives (e.g. data visualization) and take an additional required course called math for data scientists, which are all offered online. A capstone or thesis is mandatory.
Applicants should have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution or its foreign equivalent. You don’t need to have extensive academic or work experience in public policy, but they’re desirable skills. The GRE is not required, but a strong score will improve your chances of admission.
Norwich’s career-targeted MPA is military-friendly and 100% online. It’s intended for working professionals who aspire to be city managers, policy analysts, CEOs of NGOs (and all the jobs in between). Coursework for this 36-credit, 6-course program can be completed in 18 months. There is only 1 general course in Foundations of Public Administration & Policy and the remaining 5 are devoted to policy analysis & methods (beginner & intermediate).
Norwich has gone out of its way to make the MPA a practical step toward career advancement. There are four start dates per year and a number of hands-on, online labs. In addition, Norwich hosts a week-long residency at the end of the degree so you can network with faculty and fellow students.
Applicants should have a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of 2.75 from a regionally or nationally accredited U.S. institution (or the equivalent from a foreign institution) and the usual bundle of recommendations, résumé, and a letter of intent.
University of Chicago
If you have a public policy background, good quantitative skills, but little to no work in computer science, this MSCAPP will be right up your alley. Taught concurrently by the Harris School of Public Policy and the Department of Computer Science, it’s specifically designed to help graduates to roles such as Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Data Officer (CDO), Chief Technical Officer (CTO), or Transparency Officer (TO).
The MSCAPP is an 18-course, 2-year program. In the first year, you’ll tackle core courses in computer science (e.g. machine learning, databases, etc.), stats, and microeconomics. In the second year, you’ll have considerable freedom to choose electives (e.g. political strategy, data science, econometrics, etc.). Plus you’ll be involved in a summer internship, an ongoing workshop series, and a variety of policy labs.
U of Chicago is looking for applicants with significant undergraduate and professional achievements and strong quantitative skills. However, you’re not expected to have a background in computer science. You’ll also be expected to submit GRE/GMAT scores, transcripts, a résumé, three letters of reference, and two essays.
University of New Hampshire
UNH’s unusual program allows you to combine the best of its MPP and its MS in Analytics into a dual degree. The MPP is run by the Carsey School of Public Policy and the MS is run by the UNH Graduate Program in Analytics & Data Science, so you’ll be taught by faculty from both arenas.
It’s a 2-year, full-time program with a total requirement of 61 credits. You’ll begin by focusing on either the MPP or the MS Analytics, but you’ll be allowed to study courses and earn credits from the other program during each year. The MS, in particular, focuses on real-world tools, methods, applications, and practicums. A colloquium and internship are included and the dual degree ends with a combined 3-credit capstone project.
Be sure to apply for the MPP/MS Analytics dual degree. If you want to begin with MPP coursework, you need to apply for the dual degree by the MPP application deadline date (June). If you want to start with the MS Analytics coursework, you need to apply to the dual degree by the MS Analytics application deadline date (February). Requirements include GRE scores, 3 letters of recommendation, transcripts, a personal statement, and a resume.
University of Pennsylvania
Fascinated by the use of data analytics in social policy analysis, research, and evaluation? Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) has a program for you. The MSSP + data analytics certificate is a judicious blend of the technical and the theoretical, with a solid core of social policy & practice.
The 12-course, 3 to four semester program begins with courses in policy, analytics, and computer science, before digging deeper into areas such as economics, community mapping, and urban spatial analytics. There is a policy internship in data analytics and a big emphasis on real-world skills (e.g. programming, data visualization, etc.). Fellowships with outside partners (e.g. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) may also be available.
You can put this knowledge to use at one of SP2’s research centers—social good and philanthropy are watchwords at the school. SP2 also has a number of data-driven special projects where a keen analytics student can contribute.
The admissions criteria for this program are the same as the regular MSSP. Applicants are expected to have a bachelor’s degree and a GPA that reflects strong academic ability and good GRE or GMAT scores. The required application essay should explain your particular interest in data analytics.
University of Texas – Dallas
Lest you be confused by the title, UT’s program is a wide-ranging degree that explores the role of analytics and data in social science. You’ll be learning how to apply your technical skills in fields such as criminology, economics, geospatial information sciences, public policy, and sociology—certainly not just harvesting data from social media.
The 36-credit degree includes 15 credit hours in quantitative methods, research design, and stats and 12 credit hours in hard-core analytical electives. You’ll also complete 9 hours of classes in your preferred discipline (e.g. criminology). This is to prepare you for job titles such as data scientist, research analyst, community intelligence expert, etc.
The program is the brainchild of the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences (EPPS), with its many research centers and its interests in areas such as urban policy, geospatial research in global health, and education.
There are no specific prerequisites for the MS, although some of the required core courses will require evidence that you’ve completed a college algebra or calculus course. You should also have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, a 3.0 GPA, strong GRE scores, and three letters of recommendation.