What if there were a network of state Chief Data Officers, like the Civic Analytics Network?

On November 8th, I drove to Cambridge, MA from Hartford to attend the Civic Analytics Network’s Summit on Data-Smart Government. Conveniently this event was within driving distance for me, otherwise, given the tight budget in the State of Connecticut, I might not have been able to attend. I’ve been casually following the Civic Analytics Network since its inception; periodically browsing the website and through Twitter. When the group published An Open Letter to the Open Data Community, I saw a group that shared many of the same thoughts as I do. In fact I “liked” and re-tweeted it; which in this day and age represents a fairly hearty endorsement (despite what we all say in our bios). What resonated more with me, was that the group was able to develop some consensus about where “open data portals” should be headed, share that out into the community; and that the private sector responded.

Some time ago, in the summer and fall of 2016; a group of state Chief Data Officers’s began to talk. It was initiated by Ed Kelly from Texas and Liz Rowe from New Jersey; with Liz ultimately taking on the bulk of the coordination. We had conference calls and started putting together a charter and a series of recommendations to the federal government. But, we’re all busy and we’re all new to this; and asking any one of us to coordinate such a group is a lot. There’s no blueprint for being a state Chief Data Officer , particularly when you are the first person to do that job in a state. There’s an ebb and flow to state government around fiscal years and legislative sessions, that can quickly fill up one’s already limited time. The work we were doing quickly took a back seat to all of our other priorities.

In October, I and the other State CDO’s, received an email from the State of Arkansas’ newly appointed CDO, Richard Wang. He invited us to attend a forum he was sponsoring in Arkansas for high level staff in their government. For a variety of reasons, including funding restrictions, many of us had to decline. However, thanks to his email, we began a discussion about how we could better collaborate, share information and “war stories”; and how critical it was to this in person. While there are so many tools for electronic collaboration and communication; there is simply no substitute for face to face meetings.

There’s no better example of this that I can think of than the Civic Analytics Network. I’ve never been to one of their meetings, yet what I saw at the Summit was quite remarkable. There was a comradery that existed amongst them that you don’t often see in government, particularly in state government. It was evident in their panel discussions that this wasn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation. I heard them discuss how one would use bits and pieces from another’s code or strategy and apply it to their own processes. I saw a couple of them having a side conversation, tucked away in a small hallway, which was probably more candid that you might be able to do in a larger group. Ultimately, I could tell that at some point, they must have realized that it’s easier to be the first to have a job alongside a group of other first timers, than it is to do it alone. Not only would they be more successful as individuals, but their cities would ultimately be more successful.

The state CDO’s recognize this as well. We try our best to communicate and share stories. But there’s only so much we can do, none of us have the time to set up a conference or meeting; and most of us have razor thin budgets preventing us from travelling across the country a couple times a year. The reason the Civic Analytics Network is successful is the incredible support system they have in place. We need this same support system too.

So, back to the original question, and more: What if there were a network of state Chief Data Officers, like the Civic Analytics Network? What would we do? Why is it important? To begin with, states have broad authority and responsibility for education, criminal justice, health and social services, transportation, and the environment. We’re all just starting to scratch the surface of the opioid and substance abuse epidemic. We have both robust and maturing data systems that can help us understand many complex issues and set us on a path toward evidence based policy. We can go beyond analytics to person centered services, by connecting the data from different systems such as social and mental health services to better serve individuals. All states have a role in the criminal justice system, and an obligation to ensure that it is safe, fair, and cost effective. We could share how we’re looking at health care in the prison system, better connecting at-risk youth with the services they need, or simply how we can make more data publicly available.

Much like the Civic Analytics Network, with proper support, we could: engage data scientists at academic institutions to fill in our skills gap while we catch up, share and build upon software or code developed by another state, or simply share knowledge of how one of us was able to overcome a technological or bureaucratic barrier. We might even be able to influence the private sector technology providers to develop better, more cost effective products that meet the needs of state government; much like the city Chief Data Officers have.