What the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Revealing to Federal Chief Data Officers

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While some agencies have yet to reveal a chief data officer, others are spinning up new teams, tools and projects to address the global health crisis.

In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple federal agencies were moving to prioritize data management and extract appropriate insights to better inform choices in their operations. But with the global health crisis came an immediately amplified need for more streamlined, interoperable data sources around health and human movements, and technical resources to make sense of the much-needed insights. 

The novel coronavirus pandemic sparked new opportunities for agencies to leverage data to drive rapid outcomes and also exposed information silos and gaps in certain departments’ adherence to federal, data-centric policies. 

“That’s an easy question—‘did this situation highlight better need for data-sharing and evidence-building?’ I think clearly, the answer is ‘yes.’ What practices are most effective at accomplishing our objectives—be they mask-wearing social distance observance, or drug efficacy or treatment efficacy?,” Grant Thorton’s Principal, Strategy Robert Shea recently told Nextgov. “It has highlighted ignorance about what constitutes rigorous evidence of effectiveness—and chasing the first sign of positive results when the data is not yet mature enough to be able to make those conclusions is something that I think is causing real harm.”

RELATED: The Role of Federal Chief Data Officers

Though the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act mandated federal agencies to install a chief data officer by summer 2019, multiple agencies had not yet abided when COVID-19 disrupted. “First of all there’s a law and all the agencies should have one,” Federal CIO Suzette Kent said at a Dcode virtual panel early into the pandemic. “Not all agencies have identified one, so you know, we have around 80 identified.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one of the agencies that did not have one in place. 

“I don't know that it changed anyone's understanding of the role and the importance,” Kent said. “It might have certainly changed the urgency.”

She noted that many agencies had already been working to “better use their data,” prior to COVID-19. Still, recent events are now accelerating requirements already put in place by the administration to establish proper infrastructures to help the government become fully “data-driven.” Almost all agencies now have COVID-19 information links internally for staff or externally on their websites with citizen-serving functions, much of which incorporates shared data, the federal CIO noted. “I think that agencies, particularly the ones that are on the frontline of this set of activities, have realized not only how important sharing data and common data models are, but, you know, the consistency of that information,” Kent said.

Several CDOs reiterated the need for increased data-sharing now more than before and detailed how the novel coronavirus presented new opportunities across their organizations. 

At the Defense Logistics Agency, officials rapidly shifted projects and priorities to “focus more deeply” on operations pertaining to the virus. CDO Teresa Smith said the agency was prompted by the pandemic to harness a single reporting stream and visualization stream to offer senior leaders a clearer view into relevant personal protective equipment issued and available, as well as other valuable information to help assess any potential gaps across the Pentagon’s and government’s supply chain. 

“I think it's just shifting priorities, but also learning and digging into some different areas that we might not have pursued—and we may not have known about—had we not as a collective department been partnering so much that we wouldn't have known that, ‘hey, this agency over here has this tool, maybe we ought to start looking at it,’” Smith said. “They get some uncovered insights like that, so the collaboration has really been insightful.” She added that the pandemic not only pushed the agency and its counterparts to better assess data-centered resources and work to make them more accessible, but it also promoted an increase in sharing capabilities. 

COVID-19 motivated officials inside the United States Agency for International Development to rapidly tap into its internal data sources, according to its Chief Data Officer Brandon Pustejovsky, to provide leadership with a more informed idea of how the agency is able to support telework and remote work. Data-focused officials have been leveraging help desk data, remote access data, and time and attendance data from staff to get a sense of how employees across the board are “adapting to this new environment,” he explained. “And that includes coupling this with sort of budgetary resources, and looking at third-party data to get a better sense of how COVID-19 is affecting the countries in which we work, as well,” Pustejovsky said. “So there's a lot we're doing there.”

The State Department’s first-ever Chief Data Officer Janice deGarmo also recently briefed Nextgov on how her team “sprang into action to support” the agency’s COVID-19 Task Force on a variety of projects. “But I think in terms of really incredible outcomes, one that’s top of mind for me is our work on supporting the Repatriation Task Force,” deGarmo explained. “In that situation, we built a central repository for the Repatriation Task Force, where we were able to collect, and analyze, and track data that informed decision-makers to repatriate over 90,000 Americans from 135 different countries.” 

Those numbers have continued to grow since the conversation in mid-May. Further, another department official detailed how the agency’s nascent Center for Analytics—or CfA—worked with State’s Operation Center’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy, among others, to rapidly launch the COVID-19 Data Analytics Team, or CDAT. The team is composed of CfA data scientists and agency leaders, and it ultimately “serves as the department’s central repository for collecting, managing, improving and analyzing relevant COVID-19 data,” they said.

“The CDAT enables stakeholders to operate from a single source of trusted and relevant COVID-19 datasets. As the central hub, the CDAT enhances data management by eliminating information silos and minimizing redundant data calls,” the official said. “It shares COVID-related data and analyses while ensuring legal and privacy policies are followed.”

At the Air Force, Chief Data Officer Eileen Vidrine said the pandemic has “increased velocity” and enabled individuals to better “understand the need and use for actionable data.” During the global health crisis, Americans turn on the news daily to see numbers from pandemic-induced data that are driving decisions, Vidrine noted. The Air Force, and the military at-large are driven by the notion, “people first, mission always,” and they are constantly thinking about what the COVID-19 data means to their people and their mission. “[The pandemic] has generated increased visibility and understanding about the need for data, as well as increased velocity in terms of driving us toward a common mission,” she said.

Agencies are embarking on new learnings and making progress, but data-focused officials outside of the federal government have also witnessed firsthand how the pandemic has solidified the existence of problematic data silos that can tamper efforts. 

Informatica Chief Federal Strategist and retired Army Col. Mike Anderson explained that if there is a silver lining to the current global health crisis, “it's that a lot of lessons are going to be learned, and there's probably going to be a lot more investment into being able to get data in real time.” He noted that an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently publicly highlighted that, in some cases, by the time federal insiders can make use of insights from models and predictive analytics to support decisions in response, the data used is days-old. “You know what? It doesn't have to be the case. Industry has the technology today,” Anderson said, to reduce the time between data generation and when officials can curate and make operational use of it. 

He noted that now, folks are really beginning to see the value of investing in those capabilities proactively, as opposed to reactively. “And not only investing in them, but for federal agencies sake, they need budget from Congress to do this kind of stuff,” Anderson noted. “So, I think a lot more funding is going to flow in that direction.”

And to Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, the pandemic presents a high-profile example of “really catastrophic consequences of not having better data that's more real-time and the highest quality and the best level of access possible.” Hart noted that many existing gaps in infrastructure already made it difficult for the public and federal insiders to make the best use of government data. Hart said CDOs were already grappling with how to best leverage data to support decisions, and he added that “if the chief data officers can't be successfully implemented, then we're gonna keep facing the same challenges around better using data for years to come.”

Hart added that building on the Evidence Act, the Federal Data Strategy, in this light, offers a very clear strategy for doing better—particularly to address data gaps that were already presenting themselves prior to the pandemic. “And so if anything, this should be the moment where we all stand up and say, ‘now is the time to fix these big gaps that we know about—and it's not just about the pandemic—it's about everything,’” he said.

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