Data Drives Winning Projects in the 2015 Best of Texas Awards

In the 14th annual award competition, data is powering analytics for education, discovery dashboards for the courts and returning property to constituents.

by / June 24, 2015

Texas state government spent $65.3 billion on services for its nearly 27 million citizens in 2014. Countless projects and programs were run through dozens of departments and agencies, and the Center for Digital Government, owned by Government Technology's parent company, e.Republic Inc., recognizes the best ones so that others might strive for commensurate greatness.

At the 2015 Best of Texas Awards hosted on June 26 during the annual Texas Digital Government Summit in Austin, Texas, 12 of the best individuals and organizations in Texas government will be recognized for their technological innovations, their savings passed on to taxpayers, and their contributions to public service. For a full list of winners, visit the Center for Digital Education.

"Those in the government information technology arena have again demonstrated that major strides continue to be made each year with the application of new technologies”, said Todd Sander, executive director of the Center for Digital Government.  “Reducing online wait time, ensuring IT projects are completed under budget and on time, using social media to return unclaimed property, stemming fraud and saving $80 million in administrative costs by improving business processes are all examples of this year’s innovative uses of information technology to better manage government for citizens. Congratulations to this year's Best of Texas Award winners!"

This year’s awards, the 14th annual, recognized excellence across eight categories: project management, software, IT collaboration, in-house development, mobile and wireless, social media, and data analytics and business intelligence.

The alternative to data-driven decision-making is guessing, essentially. Without using information in the decision-making process, officials must instead rely on anecdotes and intuition that are often inaccurate or incomplete. The Houston Independent School District (HISD) demonstrated how integrating data analytics into their business of education is helping to leave fewer students behind, earning them an award for the Best Data Analytics/Business Intelligence Project.

In 2011, HISD began a three-year project to build an enterprise data warehouse that would power Analytics for Education (A4E) dashboards. The dashboards are used by principals, teachers and school administrators to access reports that make information once difficult or impossible to access as easy as checking their email. HISD’s senior IT manager of data governance Patrick Porter told Government Technology that the system replaces paper-based systems that were slow, inaccessible and sometimes difficult to interpret.

Within three hours of standardized test scores being released, for instance, school officials can log in to the dashboard and view the results. Compared to the past, where each school was delivered a paper document with basic test results, the dashboard allows data sorting and filtering. Officials can filter by metrics like gender, ethnicity, language proficiency, poverty markers, or other population markers like special education. Administrators won’t just see what the test results are, Porter said, but they’ll understand them, and be able to do something about it.

The district reported a correlation between principals who accessed the dashboard frequently with improved standardized test performance among black and Latino students (an average increase in test scores of 3.2 percent).

“The more that principals were going to the dashboard, the more they were exposed to the student data, and the more they were able to try and identify intervention opportunities for these populations and for these students,” Porter said. “And I’m sure it’s not news to anybody – there are achievement gaps between these historical minority populations and the white population.”

Test scores are just one piece of a larger vision, Porter explained. “We want to be a data-driven decision-making district,” he said. “This is putting some of that data directly in the hands of the people who need it. We’re trying to disseminate in a way that that information is easily consumable by the people that can most effectively impact instruction. We’re looking forward to continue to evolve and improve and grow the space of the data that is being looked at here, so we’re continuing to drive education in a positive direction.”

Data is driving other areas of government, too, like the courts.

Travis County Criminal and Civil Courts also took an award for Best Data Analytics/ Business Intelligence Project, for the launch of data discovery dashboards that enable judges, defense commissions and county commissioners to understand the legal landscape to the tune of more than 200 metrics. Developed in-house for three years and completed in early 2015, the dashboards replace old manual processes, said Mark Erwin, technology manager for Travis County Criminal and Civil Courts.

The dashboard allows users to answer questions like whether attorneys are representing their clients competently.

“The data will show us how many cases each attorney has and how effectively they’re defending those particular cases,” Erwin said. “If, for instance, they had too many cases on their docket, so to speak, then we would know that and visualize that. It’s all in a graph and a chart. … Using data to inform decision-making is the ultimate goal of the project.”

While most parts of government seek to gain greater efficiencies and pull in more money for operations, the Texas Comptroller’s Office is to get rid of as much money as it can. The office oversees $3.4 billion in unclaimed property, and the agency is charged with returning that property to its rightful owners, which it has done with increasing success thanks to a social media campaign. In 2014, the office returned more than $2 million in property and the numbers are growing in 2015, with $3.6 million returned since January 1. The campaign, which targets geographic regions to attain higher success rates in returning property, earned the office an award for the Most Innovative Use of Social Media.

Michael Castellon, digital communications strategist at the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, says his office’s mission of returning property is important because it’s based in morals and ethics, but it’s also a demonstration of what government can do better.

“It’s a good opportunity to have a real meaningful impact and not just use social media to be fun or clever, but to use it to solve real-world problems,” Castellon said. “We’re really excited about 2015. We know right now in 2015 to date we’ve generated 17,819 claims totaling $3.6 million.”

It’s common for government to use social media today, but being innovative means taking risk, he explained. “Don’t be too afraid of mistakes,” he said. “That’s really hard in government, because government agencies tend to be very risk averse, but by allowing a certain level of risk, you can really learn a lot. I think to really do anything impactful really requires that. Our mistakes have certainly fed our success in that regard.”

Castellon detailed one mistake they made early on, which was to get hung up on certain metrics, like number of followers, when in fact that number wasn’t necessarily indicative of success. Thinking from a data-driven perspective is a new skill and a new way of thinking for many agencies, and getting good at it may take time and practice.

“We instead learned to focus on metrics that demonstrate impact,” he said. “We look at the bigger picture: Are we helping taxpayers? Are we creating actual value? These are things as civil servants we have to focus on.”

The 2015 Best of Texas Award Recipients are:

 

Demonstrated Excellence in Project Management

Alan Girton, Senior IT Solutions Manager, city of Fort Worth

 

Best Application Serving the Public

  • National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), Texas Department of Motor Vehicles
  • YourTexasBenefits.com, Texas Health & Human Services Commission

 

Best Application Serving an Agency’s Business Needs

  • TxSmartBuy System Upgrade to Cloud-based eCommerce Technology, Texas Comptroller Of Public Accounts
  • Game Warden Mobile Hunting/ Fishing License Verification, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Best IT Collaboration Among Organizations

  • Fort Worth Regional Radio Communications System, City of Fort Worth

Best In-House Developed Application

  • Medical Examiner Application, El Paso County
  • Parent Center, Judson Independent School District

Best Mobile/Wireless Project

  • Providing for the Mobile-First Student, The University of Texas at San Antonio

Most Innovative Use of Social Media

  • Texas Unclaimed Property Social Media Campaign, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Best Data Analytics/ Business Intelligence Project

  • Analytics for Education (A4E) Dashboards and PowerUser Reporting Environment (PWR), Houston Independent School District
  • Courts Data and Indigent Defense Project, Travis County Criminal and Civil Courts

 

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.