Creating Equity Through Data-Driven Systems Thinking

November 2020
Topics: Systems Engineering, Modeling and Simulation, Social Behavior, Public Health, Artificial Intelligence, Disease Outbreaks
MITRE has launched a Social Justice Platform, applying systems thinking expertise and data analysis to strengthen racial, social, and economic equality in the United States.
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Recent civil unrest and the social divide exhibited in our elections have made clear that real systemic change requires honest dialogue, but also data to direct action. What’s also clear is that lasting systemic change requires an unbiased and inclusive approach.

Drawing on MITRE’s systems thinking expertise, we’re bringing together partners to leverage the broadest data and expertise to take a deep dive into patterns, biases, and structures to provide analytics that can influence actions to improve social justice. MITRE works in many sectors across the whole of government to apply an independent, data-driven systems view and convene partners to drive change.

Our Social Justice Platform provides a foundation to explore solutions to change the course of disparities due to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, education, or ability. MITRE defines platforms as a set of integrated technologies, domain knowledge, and expertise combined to rapidly build impactful strategies. Platforms provide a means to tap into—and add to—existing knowledge to create reusable solutions for current and future challenges.

MITRE’s suite of platforms enables our project teams to take on audacious problems by providing access to the best data sources and technologies, as well as a community of experts to build on past work to create new approaches. In this way, we take lessons learned in one domain and apply them to another, accelerating innovation and increasing speed-to-mission impact.

Social justice is precisely the type of challenge that requires this unbiased, objective vantage point, deep technical expertise, and systems-of-systems capabilities to address.

A Safer World Means an Equitable World

With data, tools, and frameworks, MITRE’s Social Justice Platform advances outcome-driven solutions that address entrenched social, economic, and health disparities. It’s organized along five focus areas: Health and Social Equity, Resilient Communities, Social Innovation, Technology and Analysis, and Partnerships. Initial areas of focus include community policies, mental health treatment, and addressing biases in artificial intelligence (AI).

Partnerships are particularly important because MITRE can’t do this alone. Industry and academic partners are key to addressing complex challenges, as demonstrated with the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition. Existing and desired partners include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Advancing Minorities' Interest in Engineering, the Thurgood Marshall Fund, industry, academia, government, and others to collaboratively tackle issues of social justice.

Kerry Buckley, vice president, Air Force, MITRE National Security, and officer champion of this initiative, sees MITRE’s Social Justice Platform as a natural extension of our mission: solving problems for a safer world. “You can’t work toward a safer world and at the same time accept systemic social inequities,” she says. “MITRE is well-positioned to apply our evidence-based, systems engineering perspective to this complex challenge.

“Our multidisciplinary approach and unique vantage point working across the whole of government through our operation of several FFRDCs [federally funded research and development centers] mean we can identify patterns, help shape solutions, and use open systems thinking to create a data commons around social justice.”

The platform provides a conduit to help employees and external partners, decision makers, and influencers collaborate on, contribute to, and shape solutions on critical social justice fronts. And, most important, Buckley says, put the work into practice.

“We’ve seen how vital it is to our employees that we use our natural strengths to impact the social justice landscape,” Stephanie Turner, vice president, inclusion, diversity, and social innovation, and social justice officer champion with Buckley, says. “Our focus is on justice, rather than injustice, and leveraging our areas of expertise to effect change.”

The fastest-evolving focus areas are highlighted below.

Resilient Communities: Built to Handle Extremes

When it comes to community equity, the capacity to withstand and prosper in the face of challenges (e.g., hurricanes, pandemics, recessions) is essential.

“Communities constantly change as they experience shocks and stressors; they’re not static,” Jenine Patterson, co-lead of the Resilient Communities focus area, says.

“We need to acknowledge the many different needs and starting points within each community and deliver data-driven recommendations so that leaders can create conditions for all residents to participate, prosper, and move forward.” 

Patterson and Resilient Communities co-lead Chris Glazner and their team are developing a Resilient Equity Framework with the goal of illuminating how the presence or lack of systems and services within a community can lead to disparities in life outcomes. Further, they will explore how and why certain events such as major weather occurrences or public health emergencies uniquely and disproportionately impact communities.

“We want to help decision makers identify priorities and understand the effect of programs they’ll put in place,” Patterson says. “And not just the immediate impacts. We have to consider the second- and third-order effects to address racial and economic disparities in their area of influence, without overcorrecting.”

Building on what MITRE has learned from its Great Power Competition work, which is identifying how citizen well-being relates to national security and resilience, with its leadership in the COVID-19 response, the Resilient Communities team is developing modeling and simulation capabilities to organize and operationalize research regarding race- and class-based inequality in health, social, and economic outcomes. 

“No matter where you sit on the political or social spectrum, data-driven decision making can move us in the right direction,” Patterson says. “It helps us target real problems and tailor effective solutions.”

Health and Social Equity: Getting Ahead of a Mental Health Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a significant toll on every American’s mental health. But younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers are suffering disproportionately higher rates of suicide ideation (suicidal thoughts) and substance abuse during this time, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re leveraging MITRE’s work in healthcare and building on the latest research on social determinants of health to develop frameworks for measuring, providing, supporting, and improving mental health services needed to address unmet mental health needs,” according to Cassandra Okechukwu, Health and Social Equity focus area lead.

Among other aspects, the Health and Social Equity team is looking at alternative and innovative care delivery and payment models to accommodate those who have been underserved.

Before the pandemic—and historically—the number of Black Americans who seek mental health support is lower than that of White Americans. Yet the level of care available to Black patients is of poorer quality when compared to the care available to White patients. Given this fact, Okechukwu and her team are starting with Black Americans as a use case, but the longer-term goal is to apply the frameworks to dismantle the mental health disparities that impact all underserved communities across the country.

“COVID is accelerating the need and adding a layer of stress that increases the burden even more in Black communities,” Okechukwu says.

Learn more about our work on mental health disparities in the Black community.

Technology and Analysis: Using AI to Root Out Bias

Bias in AI is a complex sociotechnical challenge. Multiple companies and organizations are contributing best practices, frameworks, and algorithms to ensure that AI as a tool is efficient, fair, and balanced across sectors. MITRE will leverage these existing analytical tools and explore new approaches to mitigating bias in AI.

“Bias can be propagated throughout the life cycle of AI development, starting with incomplete data collection and continuing all the way through predictive modeling,” Joe Ungerleider, Technology and Analysis focus area co-lead, says. “We’re examining the AI life cycle to help mitigate bias in our solutions.” (See How Can Ethics Make Better AI Products?)

Co-lead Jay Crossler says, “There’s an art behind all AI feeds. Individual choices and experiences go into what’s developed. We recognize programmers as one of many stakeholders and want to develop tools to raise awareness of the various sources of bias.

“Our goal is to build a playbook to make the system more data-inclusive so that decisions based on AI are better informed.”

An example of a potential outcome is a job recruiting tool algorithm that recognizes a gender-biased term and asks the developer if they want to substitute a different word.

“MITRE and our partners can contribute tools, capabilities, and meaningful solutions to reduce bias in AI used across government, industry, and academia,” Ungerleider says.

Why MITRE?

With over 60 years of solving large-scale, complex problems, MITRE is uniquely positioned to understand the underlying systems, relationships, and potential levers that drive social change.

In collaboration with partners, MITRE has a history of providing objective, evidence-based capabilities to help policymakers and public and private sector leaders make decisions, which  will enable the Social Justice Platform to transform the nation’s current systems and policies into ones that equitably meet the needs of all people.

Irv Lachow, Social Justice Platform program lead, describes the work as a critical national priority. “Social equity is a must-have, not a nice-to-have, across all aspects of government, academia, and industry.”

If you are interested in working with MITRE to help advance our social justice initiative or have questions, contact us at socjusticeplatform@mitre.org.

—by Karina Wright

Explore More at MITRE Focal Point: Promoting Equity

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