Virginia, a 2018 Readiness Challenge winner, has had multiple government leaders committed to making the Commonwealth ‘smart.’ Carlos Rivero, the current Chief Data Officer is the most recent and his office’s ability to stand-up a COVID-19 dashboard in one (1) week is a key indicator of the Commonwealth’s progress on its smart journey.
This milestone was NOT the result of a new technology development; but instead a data vision, a shift in data culture and a framework for data sharing. The insight and cooperation of a willing contractor, here Qlarion, was instrumental in meeting the need.
This article reviews the data sharing culture that CDO Riverio had to change, the framework for sharing confidential data and the use of a civic data trust to accelerate the process.
Background for COVID-19 dashboard
The COVID-19 dashboard is an extension of FAACT (Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation), which was authorized by the Virginia legislature in 2017. FAACT is a collaboration between the Virginia Departments of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to enable users at the state and local level to use empirical data to proactively address the opioid and addiction crisis.
FAACT’s self-service analytics layer allows the participating organizations to create reports and dashboards, look at incident maps, and more effectively collaborate with each other. Data included within FAACT is updated frequently, in some cases, as often as every 15 minutes, to provide Virginia’s leaders with near real-time information to make critical response decisions.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Virginia, data about identifying hospitals in need of supplies and pharmaceuticals, hospitals and regions that have surge capacity (i.e. available hospital beds and ventilators or the ability to quickly stand up an overflow hospital,) were quickly added and the FAACT dashboard became the COVID-19 dashboard.
“This expansion of FAACT united information from sources across the Commonwealth to provide decision makers with the insight needed to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic,” said Carlos Rivero. “Better yet, we were able to do so quickly and efficiently. Had we not previously had the technical, legal, and governance infrastructure in place through FAACT and the corresponding Commonwealth Data Trust, the expansion that took us just days to complete would have taken months. We were prepared and that preparation allowed us to best support our constituents and communities during a time when it was needed the most.”
The problem is that data sharing is not part of organizational culture
I first met Carlos Rivero, the new Chief Data Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia at Virginia’s Readiness Workshop in Richmond in October, 2018. At the workshop he outlined his plans for improving data sharing and data governance in the Commonwealth of Virginia. During one of the sessions, he talked about his new job, which was creating both a data sharing culture and operationalizing data sharing in Virginia. He related that Virginia had 1,686 data sets and only twenty-two percent (22%) were being shared. With 139 cities and counties and 68 executive agencies, plus universities and boards …the Commonwealth was flooded with data; but was sharing very little of it.
A Commonwealth of Virginia report (2017 Executive Directive 7 Final Report, Leveraging the Use of Shared Data and Analytics) stated that data assets were NOT shared outside of the source agency due to a “complex array of federal and state laws, regulations, program rules, and related policies.” The report also stated that agencies had developed a risk‐averse culture opting to not share data by default. Finally, state agencies did not have the necessary “technical, financial, or personnel resources to sustain data sharing relationships” or initiate and manage data analytics projects. A Council survey of executive agencies, cities and counties in 2019 for the CDO office confirmed these findings.
Solution requires a vision, a cultural shift and a framework
A key to CDO Rivero’s data sharing mandate was creating a data culture in Virginia. For Carlos, this meant (i) establishing awareness, (ii) facilitating engagement, (iii) providing inspiration and (iv) promoting empowerment. The Council produced a survey for the CDO to establish awareness and set a benchmark for data knowledge. In the survey, Carlos had learned that (i) over 60% of many local (city and county) entities had not designated data owners, (ii) over half did not have a data inventory and (iii) over 60% had not designated a privacy officer. Carlos then followed up with a road-show with regional data leaders across the Commonwealth kicking off a program of engagement and education.
The most important data is some of the hardest data to access
The data used in FAACT is data that is subject to many federal and state regulations. It included information, some sensitive, from (i) the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, (ii) Local Corrections, (iii) the Virginia State Police, (iv) Community Service Board, (v) the Virginia Dept of Forensic Sciences,(vi) Winchester Police Department, (vii) Private Healthcare System, and (viii) US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor. These type of data can be the most important to analyze and predict; but the hardest to access. Everyone is reluctant to share this data, not only because it is regulated; but also because of organizational conservatism as detailed above.
CDO Rivero’s approach was to use a civic data trust to manage the data sharing process.
Concept of civic data trusts is still evolving
See this fascinating conversation hosted by Smart Cities Council ANZ from some experts on the evolution of civic data trusts (minute 16.) It is clear that while some are discussing what a ‘civic data trust’ means (very similar to the discussions about what is a ‘smart city,’) others are just going about it (like Virginia) while others, such as Sidewalk Labs effort in Toronto got a lot of push-back because they weren’t prepared to deal with some of the key issues.
There is a difference between the data FAACT is using and the data Sidewalk Labs was seeking to use. The former being instance data about people (their private information) which are heavily regulated and the latter being both time-series and CCTV data captured from people using a public/private space, with considerably less regulation.
Anyone attempting to create a civic data trust needs to be able to articulate clearly (i) the purpose for data sharing, (ii) the type of data being shared, (iii) the regulatory framework that exists (or does not exist) for each data set and (v) the prospective use cases for data sharing (who will seek access to data and for what purpose.)
In Virginia the data trustee, here CDO Rivero, is tasked with both strategic direction, such as defining, approving and communicating data strategies, policies, standards, rules, guidelines, and best practices to tactical implementation, which includes (i) tracking and enforcing compliance and conformance, and, (ii) overseeing the dissemination of open data.
A framework for data sharing
Key to any understanding of this project in Virginia is to grasp the framework for sharing data. Carlos Rivero told us ‘Sharing data that is restricted by law, regulation and organizational attitudes requires a flexible framework focusing on governance, architecture, management, and intelligence.” For Carlos, the most important aspect of this is governance. The purpose of a data governance policy is to:
- To ensure data are sound, secure, and accessible to qualified users
- To improve productivity and efficiency
- To increase the value of the commonwealth’s data assets by guiding and enabling its evolution from information to intelligence
- To promote data discovery, exploration, integration, and sharing through the implementation of enterprise standards
It was clear that technology is actually the easiest part of this framework. Many solution providers focus on data collection and analysis and do little to help government customers determine the data governance framework. That would mean dealing with inter-organization culture and politics (what we call the ‘siloed’ working structure of most organizations,) which many of us that work in this area know is the indicator of ‘not so smart’ cities.
For Carlos, securing legal agreement to a data governance framework allowing data providers to set rules for data sharing is key to this project’s success. As, the trustee of the Opioid data trust, CDO Rivero, acts as an intermediary between the data providers and the data users, following the rules set by the data providers (which are often determined by regulation) so that third party data users can appropriately and securely access these data sets. This is where the hard work happens.
As a result of CDO Rivero’s work, the current Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 48 on January 7, 2002, which provides a data governance framework for the Commonwealth facilitating communication and collaboration across state government making Virginia a national leader in data-driven policy, evidence-based decision-making, and outcome-based performance management. See Executive Order 48 here. In effect, this Executive Order was extending CDO Rivero’s work with FAACT across all Commonwealth government entities.
Once the Data Trust Agreements were executed by the data providers, data started flowing into Virginia’s secure data consolidation platform supporting dashboard development. Initially, the Commonwealth of Virginia partners included the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Virginia Department of Health, and the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services. Additionally, the Virginia’s Hospital and Healthcare Association provided data from hospitals on the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU patients, and those on ventilators as well as their operating capacity on a daily basis. Currently, data from the Virginia Department of Corrections, local and regional jails, and Long-Term Care facilities have been added to the data trust and incorporated into the dashboard.
This data provided Governor Northam, state leaders and the unified command with the intelligence they needed to make critical actionable decisions saving lives across the state.
One week and the COVID-civic data trust was up and running
With FAACT in place providing needed data sets to help local communities mitigate the impact of the opioid and addiction crisis, it was only a short step to setting up a COVID-19 civic data trust, adding new data sets from new providers so that state authorities could make better informed data-driven decisions. With the help of Qlarion, the application was set up in one week.
"Whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic or the opioid epidemic, data is critical when making evidenced-based decisions,” said Adam Roy, CTO of Qlarion. “At the root of Virginia’s success was its foresight in investing and implementing a data sharing framework. Because Virginia was prepared, it was able to quickly undertake a data-driven response to COVID-19 and better protect its citizens during this pandemic.”