States Can Commit to Data Transparency in COVID-19 Recovery Efforts

June 30, 2021–By Katya Abazajian

Now more than ever, open government plays an important everyday role in people’s daily lives. Journalists, scientists, and residents alike expect regular updates from state and local public institutions to learn about the spread of COVID-19, as well as ongoing recovery efforts in their communities. But while the public’s appetite for information has grown, so have the privacy risks associated with publishing data collected by institutions to track and halt the spread of the virus. 

Schools, nursing homes, workplaces, and governments have become responsible for tracking and reporting COVID-19 testing data for individuals in their communities. Many institutions report statistics not only about public health, but also about housing, the environment, and access to services, which inform our understanding of well-being in our communities. 

Public officials need help to navigate the increasing complexity around open data and its role in public health and safety. Today, the Beeck Center’s State Chief Data Officers (CDO) Network published Open Data for Economic Recovery: A Guidebook for States to help state CDOs and data decision-makers identify the most crucial datasets for state-level transparency and the privacy considerations that will ensure they are shared responsibly.  

The guidebook centers around a list of the top 20 datasets states should publish as they enter a phase of economic recovery. Some datasets are fundamental for public transparency—meaning governments can build trust with their constituents when they publish these data openly and regularly. Others are crucial for responding to specific policy challenges that emerged during COVID-19 and align with the use cases we recommended that states focus on in our previous research, Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery.

As of June 15, more than 145 million people, or 43.7 percent of the total US population, have been vaccinated against COVID-19. As public officials set their sights on plans to “Build Back Better,” state and local governments will have to lead the charge to overhaul and improve public programs that struggled to meet residents’ needs during the height of the pandemic. 

Earlier this year, President Biden signed an executive order to ensure a “Data-Driven Response to COVID-19 and Future High-Consequence Public Health Threats”. The order included mandates for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review the effectiveness, interoperability, and connectivity of public health data systems, and for the Office of Science and Technology Policy to lead the development of a plan to advance public health data and analytics nationwide. 

The guidebook includes analysis of federal recommendations specific to COVID-19 that ensure states are up-to-date with legal and regulatory best practices as they report cross-sections of public data that include aggregated versions of personally identifiable information. Thanks to our previous research, many states have already begun implementing reforms that allow them to improve the effectiveness, interoperability, and connectivity of their public data systems, including for public health. 

By leveraging resources like Open Data for Economic Recovery: A Guidebook for States, public officials and data leaders can ensure that they are both providing public information when it’s needed and protecting the data rights of their people. 

Katya Abazajian is a fellow at the Beeck Center, and an open government advocate and researcher working to help cities and states use data for stronger local democracies.