Massachusetts IT Collaborative’s Report Is Data-Rich, Policy-Poor: A News Analysis

Here in Massachusetts, we’re very good at collecting data. This is the state that gave birth to the spreadsheet, after all. But when it comes to launching coordinated action to solve the problems confronting one of the state’s biggest industries, we’re a bit slower.

Back in February, the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick pulled together a group of industry, university, and government leaders to think about ways to make the state’s information technology sector more competitive. Participants in the group, which became known as the “IT Collaborative,” floated dozens of ideas (and we collected some of them here). But the Collaborative’s only concrete action was to spend $150,000 on a study to measure the IT industry’s contributions to the state’s economy.

That study is now complete, and Michael Goodman, the chairman of the Public Policy department at UMass Dartmouth, presented its findings yesterday at a public meeting attended by the governor and some 200 industry insiders. Not surprisingly, the study found that the IT industry has an enormous influence on economic activity in the state. The 10,000-plus IT companies doing business in Massachusetts spend $65 billion a year—equivalent to about 18 percent of the state’s GDP—and are responsible for another $29 billion in spending by local suppliers and contractors and $19 billion in consumer spending by employees, Goodman found.

The study did produce a few surprises: it turns out businesses aren’t too troubled by issues like long commute times in Massachusetts or the generally dismal condition of the state’s roads, bridges, and rail lines, for example. It also gathered further data confirming some long-term trends, such as the decline of the computer hardware and networking communications subsectors and the countervailing rise of software companies and IT services businesses.

Michael Goodman, Associate Professor of Public Policy, UMass DartmouthBut overall, there was little in the UMass study (downloadable here) to shock any IT executive, hardware or software engineer, or entrepreneur who has spent a few years doing business in Massachusetts. And in a Q&A session after his presentation, Goodman refused to be drawn out on the policy implications of the study. The farthest he would go was to point to survey respondents’ three biggest wish-list items: reduced business costs, expanded broadband connectivity, and a workforce with better training in engineering, math, and science.

At least two of those items—ensuring broader access to the Internet, and improving secondary and post-secondary education for tomorrow’s workers—are goals shared by virtually every economic development agency in the country. Achieving them would benefit all business sectors, not just the software, hardware, networking, and IT services firms that Goodman surveyed. And the third goal—making it cheaper to do business in Massachusetts, whether through lower employment taxes, simplified regulations, or more grants, loans, tax breaks, and other handouts—is also one that practically every local enterprise would endorse.

In its quest to gather more data, then, it would seem that the IT Collaborative has so far failed to take on issues and challenges that are more specific to the information technology industry—problems fine-grained enough that a) people at information technology firms could offer knowledgeable advice and solutions, and b) doing something about them might have a distinguishable impact.

At the June meeting of the IT Collaborative—which Governor Patrick also attended—Verizon regional president Donna Cupelo made a revealing remark. “Data by itself is useless,” she said. “How do we take further steps—that’s what today is about. It’s so important to take the research findings and make it meaningful, something we can use as a vital tool going forward.” The same thing could still be said six months later.

In new comments at yesterday’s event, held at the offices of Communispace in Watertown, MA, Cupelo said that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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