State Department Harnesses Data to Help Bring Americans Home Safely During the Pandemic

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The agency turned to data-focused teams and products to help decision-makers prioritize options.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, the State Department faced the monumental feat of swiftly and safely bringing home Americans positioned across the globe. 

To do so, officials tapped into a range of relevant data sources and produced new, data-driven products to help senior officials prepare and prioritize the agency’s repatriation efforts. 

“We, a couple months ago now, sprang into action to support our COVID-19 Task Force on a variety of products. 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,” Janice deGarmo, the agency’s first-ever acting chief data officer and deputy director in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions recently told Nextgov. “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.” 

Things are moving fast for the agency amid the global health crisis—since the mid-May conversation and as of May 27, State has coordinated the repatriation of 95,083 Americans on 1,017 flights from 136 countries and territories. Behind the scenes of each of those moves is the department’s Repatriation Task Force and the Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit, or CGRCU

Though the State Department also unveiled in mid-May that it’s recruiting a new CDO (who will eventually report to deGarmo), the acting official in her current role leads the agency’s relatively nascent Center for Analytics—or CfA—and its four workstreams, which include analytics, engagement, data management and technology. To support the pandemic-responding cadres of the Repatriation Task Force and CGRCU upon the coronavirus’ initial disruption, deGarmo and her team at CfA, as well as those in State’s Operation Center’s Office of Crisis Management and Strategy, among others, helped rapidly launch the COVID-19 Data Analytics Team, or CDAT. CDAT 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,” a State Department official told Nextgov

“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.” 

The work is ongoing but deGarmo explained that CfA insiders shifted their efforts to really focus on the pandemic back in March, and at that point things “picked up pretty heavily.” “Obviously, we had been supporting COVID-19 data analytics for the State Department on other operational issues,” she noted, detailing how the team had been leveraging data to track its workforce, travel restrictions, as well as pandemic-induced management and operational challenges. “But we quickly pivoted to our repatriation efforts throughout the world, and making sure that we can get Americans home safely,” she said. 

In that work, the team helped to produce multiple dashboards and resources that incorporated both open-source data and what the agency collects on the ground through its posts. The intent was to promote senior leaders’ grasp of those who need to be moved, the safest way to go about those moves, how to work with interagency partners to ensure they can be removed securely, and the countries to prioritize moves from first. Tapping into the data through this evidence-based approach, officials created country profiles and other tools detailing COVID-19 impacts in particularly relevant places, restrictions within those countries, and more information that could support top decision-makers as they quickly deciphered their best options.

“And I think that that impactful work has been, again because of our partnership with the incredible Repatriation Task Force, but it also showed actionable decision-making using data,” deGarmo said. 

Reiterating the acting CDO’s points, the State Department official also told Nextgov that CDAT is engineering a range of “high-quality data and data-informed analysis products, which provide valuable insights to mission-essential needs.” 

The Repatriation Briefing Book—its “flagship product”—harnesses “up-to-date flight and request data to provide a snapshot of where and when repatriations took place, where repatriation requests remain, and what flights are planned to address those requests,” according to the official. Another product, the CDAT-created Congressional Repatriation Inquiries report also tracks “which members of Congress are submitting inquiries about constituents requesting repatriation, the location of those constituents and how quickly the inquiries are completed.” And on top of the development of these analytical products, CDAT also offers officials with a comprehensive data catalog of department-wide data collection efforts.

“The CDAT products are leveraged to help department decision-makers solve complex problems in relation to the current repatriation efforts,” the official said. “This data-informed decision making can be achieved quickly and accurately during this time of crisis when deadlines are tight.”