Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown economist, colleagues develop real-time economic tracker

The research team Opportunity Insights, co-directed by Professor of Economics John Friedman, developed a tool to help policymakers and nonprofits respond to rapid economic shifts during the global health crisis.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new real-time economic tracker developed by a research team including Brown University Professor of Economics John Friedman could help policymakers, nonprofit organizations and philanthropists understand the dimensions of the COVID-induced economic downturn and identify targeted, effective recovery efforts.

The OI Economic Tracker, launched by the nonprofit research team Opportunity Insights on Thursday, May 7, presents data on the latest economic trends alongside independent academic analysis — providing a well-informed, up-to-the-minute picture of the rapidly shifting American economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers say.

“Policymakers can use this tool to understand not only the state of the economy in real time but also whether their policies are having the desired effects,” Friedman said. “This tool ensures that developing data-driven policies no longer means having to wait weeks or months for the data to become available — this is evidence-driven policy, updated for the era of big data.”

Friedman co-directs Opportunity Insights alongside Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, both economists at Harvard University.

Friedman explained that in the United States, the most current economic data are often held in the private sector. Payroll processors, financial service firms and e-commerce outlets monitor financial trends that provide evidence on the state of the economy.

However, information from these sources does not easily reach the public domain. Elected officials have long relied on survey-based data and government statistics that are weeks old by the time they arrive on their desks — and while those data can be valuable in typical times, their utility falls short in unprecedented, ever-changing economic times like those brought about by the novel coronavirus global health crisis.

The OI Economic Tracker, Chetty said, brings together commercial data and public-sector information to produce economic research and analysis that provides timely insights to inform the public and guide policy. The platform’s interactive dashboard focuses on key economic indicators — including small business activity, employment and consumer spending — alongside key contextual factors on education, public health and policy milestones. Users can drill down to specific geographic areas and filter by industry and income level.

“Our Economic Tracker will provide policymakers, nonprofits and the public with the tools they need to tackle an economic crisis,” Chetty said. “Rather than waiting weeks to see where the economy is falling and playing catch-up, the new data assembled in this tool offer the capacity to spot economic problems as they emerge and to consider a more targeted policy response.”

The OI Economic Tracker is available at