Innovations in Data and Experiments for Action (IDEA)

map of the world with data points overlay

IDEA Handbook - IDEA Conference 

J-PAL’s Innovations in Data and Experiments for Action Initiative (IDEA) aims to increase the use of administrative data by governments, non-profits, and private firms for evidence-informed decision-making.

Around the world, vast amounts of data are now being digitally collected or stored, which creates tremendous opportunities to transform lives through improved social policy. Using these data sets in creative and innovative ways to evaluate programs and therefore improve outcomes is a vital step toward making significant progress in the fight against poverty worldwide.

Yet so little data is accessed, analyzed, or used in research to improve decision-making. The core challenges we aim to address with IDEA include: cumbersome or non-existent data use policies and access modalities; low usability of data stored in outmoded formats and disconnected databases; and a lack of advanced technical skills for analysis and experiments.

IDEA supports governments, firms, and non-profit organizations (“data providers”) who want to make their administrative data accessible; analyze it to improve decision-making; and partner with researchers in using this data to design innovative programs, evaluate program impact through randomized experiments, and scale up successful programs. IDEA will also build the capacity of data providers to conduct these types of activities with their own data in the future. IDEA will create long-term institutional partnerships with data providers who are interested in partnering with J-PAL at each step along this pathway.

IDEA has received start-up funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for our ongoing work on creating a handbook of best practices, The Handbook of Using Administrative Data for Research and Evidence-Based Policy. The handbook will compile the experience and expertise of J-PAL affiliated researchers, including Abhijit Banerjee (MIT), Eric Bettinger (Stanford University), Amy Finkelstein (MIT), Kelsey Jack (University of California, Santa Barbara), and Amy O’Hara (Georgetown University), as well as researchers and staff at institutions including the Ohio Longitudinal Data Archive, New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. Our work on the IDEA handbook will culminate in an invaluable resource covering administrative data access, use, security, and ethics. Our chapter authors include researchers, data providers, and practitioners with expertise in a range of countries and topics. This depth contributes to broad lessons on administrative data that are applicable across contexts, in high income countries as well as middle and low income countries. The IDEA handbook aims to extract lessons learned from current administrative data use cases, both in the US and abroad, to help researchers more efficiently gain access to and utilize administrative data in the future.

The IDEA conference, to be held in Cambridge on April 2-3, 2020, will convene researchers, data providers, and practitioners-- including representatives from the San Francisco Unified School District, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and universities including MIT, Harvard, Cornell University, Stanford, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Ohio State University-- for two days of collaborative discussions and presentations on the handbook chapters, an important part of the process of creating this rigorous and dynamic resource. To learn more about the conference, or to let us know you would like to attend, please contact Evan Williams at [email protected].

Opportunities to support IDEA

IDEA has received start-up funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create a handbook of best practices. We are seeking funding for core activities, including:

  • Setting up IDEA Labs at our regional offices in Cairo, Cambridge, Cape Town, Jakarta, New Delhi, Paris, and Santiago to work with regional data providers such as government ministries, school districts, and municipalities, as well as international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, who want to better analyze their data and use it for experiments to evaluate innovative programs.
  • Issuing competitive RFPs that will provide funding to researcher and data provider teams interested in using administrative data for experiments.
  • Policy outreach to promote wider access to and use of administrative data in experiments.

Shawn Cole (Harvard Business School), Iqbal Dhaliwal (J-PAL), and Lars Vilhuber (Cornell University).

Initiative Director
Anja Sautmann (J-PAL).

Senior Initiative Manager
Jim Shen

Initiative staff
Sam Friedlander and Evan Williams 

To discuss how to partner with or support IDEA, please contact Evan Williams at [email protected]


IDEA has been seeded with start-up support from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. IDEA is concurrently seeking funding from interested donors for the activities listed above.

Request for Proposals

J-PAL is currently in the process of identifying pilot sites to be awarded IDEA grants to improve access to administrative data for research.