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How data can lead states to post-pandemic recovery

A new report compiled by the State Chief Data Officers (CDO) Network lays out a post-COVID roadmap that details how data will be critical to economic recovery in four key areas: workforce and education, budget reallocation, health and benefits, and neighborhood well-being. To effectively make data-driven policy around those issues, however, states must be able to share information on populations susceptible to getting the coronavirus and vulnerable to the related economic fallout.

“Many essential workers are the same people who are most economically and medically at risk,” according to the report, released this month by the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. “Government decision-makers must consider that in this time, people in vulnerable situations not only need support to improve mobility out of poverty, but to maintain a basic level of economic stability that will help them to survive.”

An essential element for recovery planning is accounting for how social programs interact with one another so that a change to one doesn’t overwhelm another, the report says. However, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and stimulus packages such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act lack specific guidance on how to use data for pandemic response and recovery, approaches vary by state, said Tyler Kleykamp, who co-authored the report along Katya Abazajian, director of the State CDO Network.

“You’ve got 50 states out there trying to figure out how to do this all on their own,” said Kleykamp, who’s also a fellow at the Beeck Center.

States would be better positioned to respond if they could bring their data together across the federal programs they implement, such as unemployment and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, both of which have seen increased demand during the pandemic.

One way to do this is to link data about a state resident across systems and remove identifying information.

“The challenge with that is the lack of standardization that exists across these systems and the way data are collected -- and then that’s compounded by the fact that many of these are older” systems, Kleykamp said. “Those old systems aren’t easily retrofitted to adapt to create a new standard for the way they collect it. There’s a need to pull that data together, standardize it in a separate place in a database … so it can be more easily merged and then integrated across those systems.”

The roadmap provides use cases that can be adapted for each of the four issues. It also rates the complexity of implementing similar technologies and lays out the CDO’s role. For instance, it cites the rollout of a Cluster Acceleration Partnership at Utah’s Department of Workforce Development Services that gave grant money to higher education institutions that meet critical needs in the state’s workforce.

That’s a low-complexity program that uses unemployment insurance data, labor market information and higher education data but contains no sensitive information.

Under the health and benefits category, the roadmap recommends targeting safety-net benefits to low-income people with higher health care costs. “Reviewing data on healthcare costs can lead to analysis of the effect of healthcare or lack thereof on reliance on other state programs,” the report states. Infections in people less likely to get a COVID-19 vaccination because of cost or lack of local access, for example, could cause a ripple effect through the workforce, increasing dependence on social services and limiting states’ ability to reopen safely.

The report ranks that effort moderate in complexity, with the CDO supporting geocoding data for mapping and technology for data sharing and integration.

Under budget reallocation, the roadmap recommends evaluating the performance and costs of youth detention, noting that prisons and detention centers have a high COVID risk and that “youth detention centers fail to rehabilitate those young people who emerge.” Creating a new approach is highly complex in that a CDO would have to establish metrics to demonstrate that the criminal justice system is diverting youth and adults from detainment and collate data on outcomes from youth correctional programs and counts of served individuals at the neighborhood level.

“It’s just highlighting how important getting more data in the hands of policy-makers is going to be moving forward,” Kleykamp said of COVID-19. “We need to start thinking about [data] as real critical infrastructure in terms of how we begin to deliver better services moving forward.”

The wheels are already in motion to start implementing some of the use cases, he said, adding that the aspect of these projects that often takes the longest is getting data-sharing agreements in place. “I think within months we’ll start to see progress on this,” he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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