5 tactics for data leaders during the pandemic
- By Robert Audet, Vasil Jaiani
- Jun 12, 2020
COVID-19 has heighted the importance of trusted and readily accessible data to support sound policy, strategic, and operational decisions, effectively facilitating decision-makers to manage through the pandemic and plan critical actions to enable an economic recovery. Federal, state and local leaders have been bombarded with a myriad of questions – ranging from the number of available hospital beds, to the impact of small business loans on employment or the sequencing of actions to reopen segments of the economy. Having accurate, reliable data is essential to answer these questions in a timely and trusted manner and understand the impact of the decisions. Public-sector chief data officers and data leaders are key figures enabling and promoting the use of data to help agencies take an information-driven approach. Based on research and discussions with senior executives, we’ve found five actions public sector CDOs and data leaders can take to maximize the usefulness of data to advance information-driven decision-making during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Ensure data quality
The quality of data directly impacts the credibility of COVID-19 analyses. Based on a recent data quality survey conducted by Trifacta, “75% of C-Suite executives are not confident in the quality of their data and 74% of total respondents feel their data is not completely accurate before data prep processes, which shows that even at the highest level of the organization, the quality of the data is in doubt.”
Many of the data quality problems are driven by inconsistencies across multiple data sources, poorly labeled data, disorganized data stores, lack of metadata and limited skilled resources to address data quality issues. During a pandemic, it is challenging to address these systemic issues broadly, so CDOs and data leaders should take a more focused approach to improve data quality based on high-priority information needs.
For each information need, data analysts and scientists can work with data consumers and business data stewards to identify the critical data elements to support required analysis and information needs. They can update the associated data quality rules for vital analytics and reports, determine source systems for data, rapidly profile the data to identify quality issues and work with system owners to remediate issues. To ensure accurate data analysis, public-sector CDOs and data leaders can build dashboards that allow users to monitor quality for each data asset and the issues that are impacting accuracy. A COVID-19 data source inventory published by The Atlantic is a good example of such transparency, as it enables users to make informed decisions based on their confidence in the data.
2. Reduce time to get actionable insights
The rapid spread of COVID-19 demonstrated the need to quickly move from data availability to data-driven decision-making and action. However, the normal steps that precede taking action, such as data collection, preparation, analysis, visualization and decision support require precious time. While many factors impact the data cycle, the data preparation step is often time-consuming and an area data leaders can help reduce.
According to Forbes, data preparation accounts for the 80% of time spent by data teams, and most organizations don’t have the luxury to invest that amount of time during a crisis. To help reduce data prep time, public-sector data leaders can take actions, such as streamlining wasteful processes, updating legacy procedures and deploying new capabilities. These steps will enable more efficient data preparation and build capabilities that can support analysis and visualization.
In addition, leaders should consider engaging non-IT employees to prepare data and set up data transformation routines. Deploying DataOps approaches coupled with agile delivery principles can further reduce preparation time. Furthermore, leaders can adopt artificial intelligence and machine learning-enabled tools to support data preparation and processing, which have already demonstrated their worth in supporting South Korea’s data driven success in battling COVID-19.
3. Share data with external stakeholders
The amount of data being reported, often in graphical formats, to the public has been extraordinary during the pandemic. Whether it is volume of tests conducted, number of individuals testing positive, unemployment claims, hospital capacity or number of deaths, COVID-19-related statistics have been keenly followed in worldwide news. This health crisis has highlighted how critical having accurate, current data is for communicating government actions and keeping the public informed. Making public-sector data available to non-governmental entities enables them to make more informed decisions that have an equal impact on public outcomes. For example, The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project combines COVID-19 data provided by states and has become a trusted source for a wide range of pandemic-related statistical reporting.
Public-sector data leaders we spoke with uniformly emphasized the importance of making data publicly available. For example, Poonam Soans, CDO of New Jersey, stressed the need of keeping the public informed as the “COVID-19 response will require public understanding, approval and cooperation” and “transparency will be critical” to increase confidence and impact behavior. Thus, leaders must either revisit their open data plan or quickly create one to determine what data should be shared, how best to communicate the data, to whom it should be provided and what access controls are required.
4. Increase data literacy
The pandemic has demonstrated a growing need for having high workforce data literacy in the public sector so agency staff can read, analyze and communicate with data and leaders can use data to guide decisions. According to Gartner estimates, only 50% of the workforce is data literate. In many cases, data analysis is considered a specialized skill that is only relevant to or performed by data professionals. Limited data literacy prevents effective public service delivery and is not sustainable in the future. Data leaders must collaborate with other executives to increase data literacy throughout their agency’s workforce. Furthermore, they can promote increasing the number of employees and departments that can conduct routine analysis and interpret data to make informed decisions, without the need of specialized help from IT and data professionals, which strengthens the entire organization.
An example of public-sector data leaders prioritizing improved data literacy was shared by Josh Martin, CDO for the Indiana state government. His team serves as the state’s management performance hub and has been instrumental in launching a multiagency COVID-19 response collaboration research space. Martin said he sees “a need for increased data literacy education, both for employees engaging in data work on a daily basis and for public citizens trying to understand data and the stories it can tell.”
5. Refresh your data strategy
Many public-sector CDOs and data leaders did not have the foresight to account for the data needs required during the pandemic. Those needs, and supporting data capabilities, will continue as the country navigates through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. As the initial wave of the pandemic plateaus, data leaders have a window to revise their data strategies, reassess priorities for in-flight or planned data initiatives, assess their current-state data maturity to identify data capability gaps, and reprioritize data needs and capabilities that will enable leadership and the public to confidently make data-driven decisions to manage the pandemic and support economic recovery.
Public-sector CDOs and data leaders who take these five actions will better position their organizations to meet the increased demand for accurate, timely information. Now is the time to refresh the data strategy and define tangible steps to ensure data quality, reduce time to get actionable insights, share data with external stakeholders and increase data literacy. This is an opportunity for public-sector CDOs and executives to demonstrate leadership that will shape more effective COVID-19 responses and support impactful actions that improve both public health and the economy.