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8 data leaders on leveraging data during and after COVID-19

The unprecedented crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic elevated the importance of data-driven decisions and made state and local government data leaders key figures in the response processes.

PARTICIPANTS

We thank the following data leaders for their time, informative contributions and service to the public:

  • John Rager,* Acting Chief Data Officer and State Data Experts, State of New York
  • Carlos Rivero, Chief Data Officer, Commonwealth of Virginia
  • Poonam Soans, Chief Data Officer, State of New Jersey
  • Tamara Roust, Chief Data Officer, State of Illinois
  • Josh Martin, Chief Data Officer, State of Indiana
  • Scott Gaul, Chief Data Officer, State of Connecticut
  • Greg Useem, Chief Performance Officer, City of Alexandria, Va.
  • Dave Gottesman, CountyStat Manager, Montgomery County, Md.

*New York’s response to the pandemic has been a true multi-agency team effort – including its application of data to the problem.  The answers to our questions have been submitted jointly by Mr. Rager and data experts at Empire State Development’s Economic Analysis & Research division. the New York State data team.

When the pandemic hit, public-sector data leaders had to quickly establish capabilities and access to new data, operating a nimble, innovative, coordinated and collaborative fashion to meet the data needs of key policy decision-makers and the public. Chief data officers and data leaders in state and local government found themselves on the front lines, supporting decision-makers with data to help control  the epidemic and encourage economic recovery.

We talked with a number of state and local government data leaders during this historic crisis to find out what they learned, what they see as emerging data trends and how they think the data industry can be better positioned to help solve future societal challenges.

When gathering economic data for policy responses, New York state’s CDO John Rager said the traditional datasets were only “available at a significant lag -- often requiring a wait of weeks or months -- which, in a crisis, is too slow.” To get more up-to-date information, New York’s Empire State Development team expanded the number of economic datasets it reviewed and began to quickly analyze more preliminary and prepublication government data. In addition, the state also relied on untraditional private-sector partners such as Womply and Descartes Labs, which shared e-commerce and geospatial data to help them closely monitor trends for labor, fiscal activity, business activity and consumer behavior by region and industry.

It’s not just policy-makers who required COVID-related data from data leaders. “There has been unprecedented interest in data from citizens, advocacy groups and other researchers to understand the pandemic. This is something I have not seen before that has been sustained for months,” Connecticut CDO Scott Gaul said. “We have received a lot of different questions about the numbers, people really want to understand what they mean.”

State and local agencies that have adopted a data-driven approach to navigating the pandemic and economic recovery have thrust data leaders into a mission-critical role.

Illinois CDO Tamara Roust shared the following experience: “We came in to help automate reporting, and then as a result of that effort, we moved laterally to improve data quality, develop metrics and provide management with near-real-time views of the data.” A hospital utilization metrics system, for example, was using flat files that were manually downloaded and analyzed, making it difficult for analysts to identify trends and share data. “We created a central data repository, automated the data ingest, developed data quality checks and developed dashboards for use by the public health agencies, emergency management and the governor’s office,” Roust said. The data repository powering those dashboards also feeds websites such as the Department of Public Health’s Illinois Restore and hospital utilization website

In another example of COVID-inspired innovation, Indiana CDO Josh Martin described how his state’s analytics portal, the Management Performance Hub, launched an Enhanced Research Environment. “This secure, monitored portal allows for collaboration around data without the need to release data outside of the environment,” he said. “Most of our multiagency COVID-19 response collaboration has happened within the ERE.”

The importance of state and local data leaders and other data leaders ultimately hinges upon how important data is to support mission and crisis activities. “While it’s too early to tell what the long-term organizational impacts will be, the importance of ready, reliable data has been showcased, and the importance of CDOs and data leaders has risen naturally from that,” Rager said. “CDOs will only be valued when data is valued.” He cited New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s understanding that reliable data and data-driven decisions were key to an effective response. “Our focus moving forward is to ensure access to reliable data becomes part of normal business. If this occurs, it should reinforce the role of the CDO,” Rager said.

Whether it’s navigating the pandemic, economic recovery or normal business operations, trusted data will continue to be -- and should be -- the bedrock that supports state and local decision-making and policy-setting. Dave Gottesman, manager of Montgomery County, Md.’s ConuntyStat performance and analytics program, said he expects “recovery will be extremely gradual and will be grounded in the public health data.”

Every data leader that we engaged with agreed that data has become more important due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are seeing more clearly how important data is in solving problems,” Alexandria, Va., Chief Performance Officer Greg Useem said.

As such, state and local data leaders will continue to be critical in supporting public-sector organizations and should learn from the emerging data trends and insights surfaced during the pandemic.

Among the lessons learned, not surprisingly, was that “fancy” emerging data capabilities like artificial intelligence/machine learning  were not as important as more foundational capabilities like data governance and data quality. “Crisis has illustrated the importance of basic data hygiene and data quality, as well as data governance,” Roust said, citing “management of data throughout its life cycle, which is data governance,” as a rising trend. The importance of governance was also stressed by Virginia’s CDO Carlos Rivero  who said “data governance is a linchpin that drives everything, as it is a foundation for everything else.”

Gaul also sees data governance as an important principle that public agencies need to embrace along with creating data supply chains to enable timely analysis and decision-making. He also highlighted the importance of data quality, saying, “[The] public watches closely the governor's COVID-19 updates on [a] daily basis,” and such critical data requires accurate reporting.  Martin agreed with the importance of data governance and data quality, but he added that he sees a “need for increased education around data literacy, both for those engaging in data work on a daily basis and for those public citizens trying to understand data and the stories it can tell.”

Data literacy and identification of tools to effectively manage and use data are key elements for data-driven public organizations as noted by New York’s data team.  “Data collection, public-private data partnerships and intergovernmental data sharing” are critical activities that are likely to emerge, Rager said. Additionally, more effective discovery of data, along with metadata management and data cataloging, are trends that data practitioners should note. “Government should never have to hunt for its own data --and especially not during times of emergency,” Rager’s team observed.

“Crisis highlights weaknesses, and COVID-19 is forcing local governments to innovate at an accelerated pace,” Gottesman said.

One pressing need surfaced by the pandemic is digitization of services, data leaders said. This will have a significant impact for data practitioners as digitization will provide even more data that needs to be analyzed at scale.

Even though data quality, interoperability of systems of records and analytics capabilities are all critical ingredients for leveraging data for public good, the key still is people’s ability to come together and jointly apply data to solving problems.

Soft skills such as relationship development, collaboration and facilitation proved invaluable during the recent crisis. The rapid responses to the barrage of data requests required data leaders, in many instances, to leverage their network of relationships across public-sector agencies (or rapidly build one) to help navigate complex data issues. Useem said, “Regional cooperation between data leaders has emerged to share experiences in using data.” Rivero agreed, adding that “CDOs will emerge as facilitators and catalysts for engagement and collaboration.”

“Providing data leadership is about people, not just technology,” Rivero said.  “A [data] domain previously seen as a technology-driven enterprise needs to break out and have ability to connect to people and build partnership and trust.”

Connecting to colleagues and building relationships is also critical.  “The advice I give is always the same: Build your bridge before you need to use it,” said Roust, who has worked both in public and private sectors. The first task of any CDO should be to reach out to their state, local, and federal counterparts and develop relationships.”

Roust also noted that data leaders need to stay humble and rely on the subject matter expertise of the data owners who understand their data the best. Gaul agreed, adding that being a data leader “is about providing support and finding the right working relationships.”

“Data has not been a standard part of emergency response, and the pandemic revealed that data-centered leaders need to become a part of the emergency response playbook,” Gaul said. That will require data leaders to be ready for the next crises.  “The time to get your data house in order is not when the next emergency hits, but now,” Rager said. Besides ensuring that their “data inventory is robust,” data leaders should also “begin to identify agencies or sectors where greater data sharing would likely be of value for a comparable response effort,” he advised.  “Start building those relationships now.”

Partnerships among data leaders is something New Jersey’s CDO Poonam Soans thinks would be important for the community of data practitioners. She pointed to a State CDO Network at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center, where she and her peer state data leaders work to leverage data as a strategic asset and unlock it for public good.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented crisis, elevating the importance of data-driven decisions. State and local government data leaders have become key figures in this process, identifying data governance, data quality, data literacy, data sharing and public-private partnerships as key trends. More important, however, is the collaboration, partnerships and relationship building that are critical success factors to leveraging data to solve societal problems. We agree. It is all about people.

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