How Ali Benson melds public service and data through Data Labs

When Ali Benson was in high school, she would forge absence notes from her mom and spend hours in the library reading. She loved learning and finding connections between different people and things, but wanted to do it on her own terms. 

At first, however, Benson wanted to be a reconstructive surgeon. Then, she ended up graduating college with a degree in Art History. Then, she worked in the corporate world for several years, before deciding that was not the career path she wanted to pursue. 

Years later, this love of learning drove her decision to pursue government work at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

“I knew I wanted a job where I could make people’s lives better,” Benson said. “My work needs to mean something. I strongly believe that we spend a good chunk of our lives working, and I want to use that time thoughtfully, and I wanted to work in a space that is rooted in real life and not theoretical.” 

When COVID-19 hit, Benson had the time to take some public policy classes with the goal to enter the field of public interest technology. “I’ve worked in a variety of spaces – from the private sector, to nonprofits, philanthropy, and cybersecurity. I feel like government is a really awesome opportunity to enact change at scale, more so than other spaces,” Benson said. “I just love learning and I hadn’t really experienced yet what this looks like within a government context.” 

Now, she has found her passion in the intersection of technology, data, government, and public service at the Beeck Center, where she leads the Data Labs program, using human centered design to help states launch data sharing projects. Benson joined the Center in 2021 and co-founded the Data Labs program. 

She hit the ground running: during her second week on the team, she wrote the job descriptions for the people who would help run the program. That September, the program launched their first cohort.

“Essentially, at the early stage we had this idea and knew there was a need, so the next piece we had to figure out was, ‘how do we do this?’” Benson said. “And it worked.” 

Benson learned a lot of lessons from the first cohort: while the team originally envisioned the program to center on State Chief Data Officers (CDOs), it soon became evident that these were not the only relevant actors, thus guiding her to shift the program’s focus to other stakeholders, such as agency-level decision makers. Benson is also continuing to reimagine the convenings and check-ins between participating states in order to foster more collaboration and communication.

In 2023, following the conclusion of the program’s second cohort, Benson and the Data Labs team were recognized for their work in making data-informed policymaking a reality by Fast Company as a “Next Big Thing in Tech.” The annual award recognizes innovation and technology breakthroughs that promise to transform the future of industries, governments, and society at large within the next five years. 

“When we first launched Data Labs I thought, ‘I hope this works,’ because you can come up with a well-researched idea and then play it out and discover new things and realize that it doesn’t work in the real world,” Benson said. “So one thing that was very validating with the Fast Company award was that it was awarded because of some of the tangible impacts that states were able to achieve within six months of completing the program.” 

To Benson, the Fast Company award only confirmed the significant impact that Data Labs has had in only its first two years. Following their participation in the first cohort, Colorado received a historic $250 million investment to address homelessness, including first-ever funding for data infrastructure and analysis. During their participation in the program, the team spent nine months creating a data-driven, holistic view of persons experiencing homelessness and scoping a plan for improving data related to zoning, affordable housing site selection, and supportive housing exit outcomes. 

Oregon, like Colorado, also participated in the first cohort, joining Data Labs to tackle issues in higher education in the healthcare field. By the end of the program, the Oregon team had created a first-of-its-kind multi-agency analysis of the state’s nursing shortage and provided recommendations for improving educational pathways in the healthcare industry. 

Colorado and Oregon both exemplify the fast and effective work that Data Labs can do, according to Benson. 

“It shows that transformational change is possible if states can be set up for success,” Benson said.

Unlike other programs operating at a more local and grassroots level, Data Labs operates from the state level, working to change institutions, policy, and infrastructure from above. While this higher-level work is clearly vital, it nonetheless can make it difficult for Benson to see the real-world implications and impact of her work. 

“The impact can be pretty hard to see sometimes, and so I like to lean into the idea of system impact,” Benson said. “If you can have impact on the design of systems, then eventually it does trickle down to people, and it happens at scale.” 

As Data Labs enters its third year, Benson plans to lean into what has worked and create a replicable model for the program that can be scaled in the future. Whether that’s expanding the program to other levels of government, collaborating with other programs, or working more deeply across several agencies within a select group of states, there are many directions for the program to grow using its existing successes. 

“If we can get to that point, I think we can actually start to think about how we can scale this model in other contexts,” Benson said. “We’ve already received a ton of interest in Data Labs from the city level, so I think in the future it would be really interesting to think about what the Data Labs model could look like at the city level or in a particular policy area.” 

Benson is thrilled to see significant interest in the third cohort of Data Labs, especially following the Fast Company award, and recently selected four states — Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania — to participate in the eight-month program.

Reflecting on her time at Beeck and her career, Benson wants to emphasize her somewhat untraditional trajectory to show that social impact work can be approached from a variety of different backgrounds and perspectives, each one valuable for adding something new. 

“I think that all paths can lead to this space,” Benson said. “And I think that non-traditional people with non-traditional pathways are uniquely suited to approach this constantly evolving landscape with fresh and creative eyes. We bring that fresh perspective and think a little bit outside of the box. And I think we need all approaches in this space.”