By Ashleigh Fryer
Tyler Kleykamp knows better than most what a map can do.
From a young age, his plan was to become a geographer and spend his career analyzing and mapping physical landscapes. He had no idea then that the maps he would end up constructing would illustrate concepts that were far less concrete, but, arguably, far more impactful.
As Connecticut’s first-ever state chief data officer (CDO) in 2014, his role included studying the relationship between opioids and the criminal justice system to advise the governor’s office on ways to address the epidemic. Kleykamp and his team spent months identifying individuals who died as a result of drug overdoses and matching those names to people who had interacted with the prison system.
“What we found was that over half of the people that had died as a result of a drug overdose had been incarcerated at one point in time,” he said. “That resulted in a policy response where we got the legislature to authorize medication-assisted treatment in correctional facilities.”
Achieving that kind of direct impact was what drew Kleykamp to public service in the first place. In the early years of his career, he worked for an environmental protection nonprofit and spent countless hours in local government meetings advocating for the group’s priorities; it set off a lightbulb.
“You’re in a room with these people and you’re like, ‘Oh, these are the people that make the decisions that affect the things I care about,’” Kleykamp said. “This is where I need to be.”
Kleykamp’s career path twisted and turned through almost every corner of the state government, with his work touching everything from natural disaster response to bioterrorism. When he was tapped for Connecticut’s CDO position, all his years of work and interactions in the sphere of the state government had him convinced that he was prepared for one of the first tasks in the new role—securely integrating data across disparate programs and agencies.
“We were kind of like bulls in a china shop—kicking down doors and making demands of agencies. And we got a lot of pushback,” Kleykamp said. “We failed to get that initiative off the ground, and that was due to our approach. I learned quickly that we needed to get buy-in, gain their trust, and show them that we can use their data to help them answer questions that can lead to real change.”
That approach proved effective when Kleykamp and his team began studying the disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic people in Connecticut’s prison population. They collected data on all the individuals serving prison sentences, the length of their sentences, and the crimes they had been convicted of and discovered that the majority of Black and brown people were being held on longer sentences because they were in possession in a drug-free school zone. By mapping the locations of these zones, Kleykamp realized that, in Connecticut’s larger cities—Hartford, New Haven, or Bridgeport—where the population was far more diverse than in more suburban areas of the state, it was virtually impossible to be outside 1,500 feet of a drug-free school zone at any given time due to the density of those areas.
“At first people were like, ‘Why would we get rid of that law? We’re trying to protect children.’” Kleykamp said. “But when we displayed that on a map and brought it to the legislature, they saw for themselves that if you’re in New Haven, no matter where you go, you’re going to carry this harsher penalty. But if you’re in one of our more affluent communities, you’re way less likely to get that sentence. That is effectively institutional racism; we’re punishing people based on where they live.”
After his CDO role, Kleykamp decided to bring his experience to the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, where he could take a national approach and share resources, tools, and insights that would make it easier for other states to introduce the role into their own governments. With the help of former fellow Denice Ross, he launched the State CDO Network in 2019. By 2022, the network had grown to 30 CDOs from states from states across the country collaborating on shared resources and goals.
In August 2020, as the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continued pummeling state systems, Kleykamp and fellow Katya Abazajian published Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery: A Roadmap for States, which outlined the critical role CDOs play in how states use data to inform decision making and disaster response. The foundational research and recommendations evolved in 2021 into Data Labs: Roadmap to Recovery, a training and technical assistance program aimed at empowering state governments to use data more effectively, efficiently, and equitably. By the spring of 2022, eight states had worked with Beeck Center experts to develop data projects supporting local COVID-19 economic recovery efforts.
“When you’re in a CDO role, you sort of have tunnel vision in the sense that you’re heads down trying to get things done in your state,” Kleykamp said. “What the Beeck Center gave me was the opportunity to step back and look across all states, cities, and the private sector and see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The philosophies and practices I learned will help shape what I do next.”
The next stop for Kleykamp is Connecticut Foodshare, a statewide food bank which distributes food to more than 700 local pantries and provides resources and research to address the root causes of food insecurity. As the organization’s chief data and impact officer, he is focused on using data and evaluation to improve program efficacy and increase access.
As Kleykamp returns to the nonprofit world, his experiences within and adjacent to government have shown him that, while crucial, no map will tell you the whole story. It takes intentionality and seeing the faces of the individuals you’re aiming to help that leads to meaningful change.
“Facebook doesn’t know everything about people on Facebook. Twitter doesn’t know everything about its users. Amazon doesn’t know everything about you, and neither does the government, regardless of which level you’re at,” Kleykamp said. “We have to understand that we don’t know everything. There are so many opportunities to use data to help people, but if you don’t use it in a way that is designed to really be supportive of people, you’re ultimately going to do harm.”