August 26, 2020 – By Katya Abazajian

A pandemic may seem like the worst time to fix slow-changing, infrastructural data challenges, but there is no better time to begin correcting systems that just aren’t working. 

Chief Data Officers (CDOs) manage critical data infrastructure that helps states innovate and make data-driven policy decisions. Earlier this month, we published Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery, a report showing how CDOs can focus their work to guide states to equitable economic recoveries. But within state governments, CDOs often struggle to make the case for sustainable data reforms when there are more pressing demands on frontline workers.

Data is an essential asset states should use to make emergency response processes more effective and efficient. Through responsible data-sharing, advanced analytics, and publishing robust open data, states can leverage data as critical infrastructure for disaster recovery.  

Many states have set up centralized COVID data dashboards that serve as the main source of information for CDC reporting and national COVID tracking by civic hackers and journalists. Based on conversations with states, we’ve found that while some dashboards have been developed in coordination with data teams’ best practices, others used ad hoc, paper-based processes to gather and publish data from public health officials. This means in states where cross-agency data sharing is not common practice, public health agencies have had to establish new information sharing processes on top of the existing strain of the health crisis. 

While national data-sharing configurations continue to evolve, states are left to fend for themselves in determining what needs to be collected, by whom, and for whom.

Many states develop mechanisms for data-sharing based on internal legal guidance that may or may not not mirror decisions made by other states. This introduces discrepancies in different states’ interpretations of what data is considered public or private, particularly with regards to sensitive health data. During COVID, each state has had to develop its own solutions for data challenges.  

Suddenly, public health agencies need immediate, open channels of communication and data-sharing across departments to inform how schools, employers, social safety net providers, and other practitioners are supporting disaster recovery. 

The CDO role has proven essential to developing multi-agency emergency response functions to COVID-19 in states that have leveraged their data capacity to enable collaboration. CDOs bring exactly the kind of systemic expertise on data use that governors and executive decision-makers need in order to empower quick action and collaboration as the pandemic’s effects continue to shift. 

CDOs can implement the steps outlined in Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery to find key opportunities to open up data-sharing across agencies. They can also champion internal cultural shifts that will allow public servants across agencies to work better together through open data and data-driven decision-making. 

Often, the changes that public servants need to see in their data systems require adapting tech procurement language and shifting data collection processes. CDOs are particularly well-positioned to advise on these decisions alongside Chief Information Officers (CIOs) by streamlining which tools and data best practices are being applied and replicated across government agencies. 

Not only is better internal data use essential for improving the efficiency and efficacy of states’ public systems, but open data and public communication around information are becoming increasingly crucial for navigating the national crisis. Journalists and advocates have demanded better data reporting on racial and ethnic disparities in the effects of social policies and programs and the spread of COVID-19. But states often lack the data capacity to even collect the right data to report these statistics from the ground up. Resolving these challenges and allowing CDOs to inform how data is collected across agencies will require a fundamental shift in how data is treated as critical infrastructure in state government.  

City officials like Beeck Center Fellow Amen Ra Mashariki, former Chief Analytics Officer in the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics in New York City, were the first to pilot the idea of “data drills,” a nod to the fact that just as emergency systems need to be primed for immediate response, data systems need to be primed for effective use in an emergency. Running data drills can be as simple as setting up theoretical scenarios in which data owners across departments are tested on protocols and best practices for gathering and disseminating data in an emergency. This kind of systemic thinking about how to apply data in the long-run can help states integrate data use into other emergency response functions. 

The key to better collaboration in a pandemic is enabling sustainable frameworks for data-sharing, integration, analytics, and open data. States must advance in how they are applying data in order to be prepared for the next natural disaster. And CDOs have a crucial role to play in bringing states up to speed on innovative data uses for public good. 

Katya Abazajian is a researcher with the State Chief Data Officers Network at the Beeck Center. Follow her at @katyaabaz.

August 10, 2020 – By Katya Abazajian + Tyler Kleykamp

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, state governments have used data to respond to real-time needs for critical information. Every day, governors review data and visualizations to react to the evolving challenges of the pandemic. As we learned from state Chief Data Officers in May, CDOs are working overtime to create the dashboards that governors use and share with the public, map food distribution sites, and integrate testing and hospitalization data across disparate sources. 

While state governments must react to immediate, shifting conditions on a daily basis, they’re left with little time to plan for economic recovery from the fallout. As of June, over 30 million Americans had filed jobless claims. Early reports of economic impacts outline tough times for small businesses, renters, working parents seeking childcare, food insecure households, and others in vulnerable situations. To account for these staggering shifts, states’ recovery efforts must be sustainable, infrastructural, and forward-looking. 


cover of leveraging data for economic recovery: A roadmap for statesREAD THE FULL REPORT


Policy makers need to decide how to respond to each new wave of the virus over the coming years. They’ll need to understand how separate social programs interact with one another, when cutting support to one system may overburden another. States should lean heavily on data to make these difficult decisions on the path toward economic recovery.

cover of Social Safety Net Benefits report
Beeck Center report on Social Safety Net benefits

States that have begun long-term recovery planning are doing so under a framework that was created after Hurricane Katrina nearly 15 years ago and predates the existence of state CDOs along with other modern data and digital service approaches. While we know that the pandemic has disproportionately affected poor communities and communities of color, we still don’t know what the long-term effects will be on these communities. By improving the way they use data, states can go beyond restoring the pre-pandemic conditions that enabled these disproportionate impacts to an environment that supports equity and mobility from poverty.

Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery: A Roadmap for States is a guide to rebuild the system to be better than it was before. The roadmap is initially focused on four main areas where data can be used in recovery efforts: workforce and education, health and benefits, neighborhood well-being, and budget reallocation. Each of these areas contains a series of use cases where states are uniquely positioned to leverage their data or policy making ability to improve recovery efforts. Some use cases outlined in the report should be feasible and actionable across states, while others require stronger enabling conditions that could shift the landscape of data use for economic recovery. Busting silos and enabling better statewide collaboration remains key to ensuring that public servants across agencies can build on and support each others’ efforts. This report not only points CDOs toward the future of their work, but outlines the powerful assets that CDOs already have at their disposal.

State CDOs play a critical role in advancing on the road to recovery. The role has proven essential to developing multi-agency emergency response functions to COVID-19 and will continue to be crucial in coordinating statewide data-driven plans for economic recovery. CDOs can implement the steps outlined in the roadmap by building more sustainable frameworks for collaboration and consulting on technical issues such as data integration, visualization, or privacy. However, CDOs need support. CDOs need comprehensive data sharing agreements and support in shifting states toward more data-driven culture to run successful data programs. Top-level leaders, including governors, must commit to leveraging data as critical infrastructure for COVID-19 response and recovery. This roadmap provides them with clear steps to take on that path.

Katya Abazajian is a researcher for the State Chief Data Officers Network, and an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Follow her at @katyaabaz.

Tyler Kleykamp is a Beeck Center Fellow and Director of the State Chief Data Officers Network. Follow him at @tkleykamp.