UW Evans School, Harvard, Northeastern study: State governments’ internet footprints reveal what they do - and how and why they differ

Stephen Kosack

Stephen Kosack

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UW Evans School, Harvard, Northeastern study: State governments’ internet footprints reveal what they do - and how and why they differ

State governments are responsible for providing education, maintaining roads, providing public safety, regulating trade, resolving disputes and a wide range of other tasks that shape Americans’ lives and opportunities.

To better understand how state governments across the United States execute these diverse responsibilities, look at their internet footprint, says a new study by researchers at the University of Washington, Harvard University, and Northeastern University.

The paper was published Oct. 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-lead author is Stephen Kosack , a political scientist and associate professor in the UW’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance , and senior research fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The other lead author is Michele Coscia. assistant professor of computer science at the IT University of Copenhagen, in Denmark.

“The online footprints of modern governments open a new window to understanding them,” Kosack said. “By analyzing this online footprint with network science methods, we were able to develop a new way of studying government - what governments do, and how they are structured to execute those responsibilities.”

The team searched for all digital traces of state and local government agencies by crawling the websites of 47,631 state agencies with a total of 32.5 million webpages and 110 million hyperlinks between them. By interpreting, mapping and categorizing their structure and functions, they found that these digital traces offer a surprisingly accurate reflection of how state governments are structured that is useful for understanding how and why states are governed differently.

“We find that differences in state government structures are most strongly associated with state economic structures, with location and income playing more limited roles,” said Kosack. “We also find that the ideology of a state - whether its elected officials and its voters lean liberal or conservative - is not significantly associated with the scale and structure of state governments.”

Kosack said the lack of association between ideology and government structure was a surprise to the research team.

“After all, ideology is partly about the proper role and functions of government. But what we saw instead is that when two states had similar economies, they were very likely to have similar state governments - even when those states were ideologically very different.”

For instance, he said that despite their ideological differences, Georgia and Massachusetts share similar economies - and similar governments. The same is true of California and Florida, or Georgia and Virginia - states that share similar economies and similar governments despite vast differences in the ideological leanings of their voters and elected representatives.

“In short,” the researchers write, “the strongest predictor of whether two state governments have similar functional structures is similarity in their economic structures, outweighing similarities in location, income, and the ideological preference of voters.”

The authors wrote also that they expect their approach to be helpful to scholars examining a wide range of questions and puzzles about government structure, evolution, relations, and effectiveness. They also expect the picture of governments’ structures reflected in their internet footprint to improve over time, as more government activity and interaction with citizens is reflected online.

Other co-authors are Ricardo Hausmann and Kim Albrecht of Harvard, Albert-László Barabási of Northeastern University in Boston and Evann Smith of the Bechtel Institute.