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State and Local Officials Describe the Long Journey to Data Sharing

Two sessions at the North Carolina Digital Government Summit in Raleigh highlighted the long-term benefits of data sharing, but speakers emphasized getting results required significant work.

The benefits of open data and data sharing are many, but the road to public and interagency data sharing can be long and winding. State, county and local officials provided that mixed message at the recent North Carolina Digital Government Summit.

In two related sessions, speakers extolled the short- and long-term benefits of connecting residents and government staffers around data, but pulled no punches in letting their counterparts in the audience know the process might be a lengthy one.

Gary Alexander, enterprise data management director for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) Government Data Analytics Center, told the audience that data sharing doesn’t just happen naturally, but has to be created in agreements that may face many statutory and regulatory hurdles. One state contract, involving six divisions from two agencies and one public-private partnership, took approximately 18 months to iron out.

The agreement to supply data in support of the NC Early Childhood Integrated Data System took longer because officials “literally had to start from the ground up,” said Alexander. A pre-approved template for the pact might have expedited the process, he said later via email. GDAC was involved as the entity that would develop the actual application and the agreement was completed and executed in June 2015.

Alexander suggested officials wanting to do more with data look to their metadata, which can facilitate data sharing by showing agencies what data they possess and where it lives; and consider utilizing a platform to help them manage their metadata across the enterprise and at more of a scale. Trust between officials and agencies can also smooth the data-sharing process; application programming interfaces (APIs) can empower the extraction and mastering of data; and if all else fails, the “nuclear” option of legislative or statutory change is out there, he added.

North Carolina has used a Data Asset Catalog Service for more than four years. The service expanded from a project focused on “early childhood data,” according to Alexander. During the fourth quarter of 2018, he said NCDIT intends to deploy API Warehouse Services (AWHS), which is an integrated API management platform offering an in-cloud, multi-tenant, shared service environment for APIs to be used for data sharing/data integration. During the current fiscal year, the state hopes to embark on data governance, though it is awaiting funding.

“This is a longer-haul investment that we really need to make now because we need to bring more formal governance into the picture,” said Alexander. “You’re going to be able to get away with not having it for a while, but it is an inevitability that you’re going to have to come up with something to do this process.”

Co-presenter Denise Foreman, assistant county manager at Wake County, shared her agency’s success in overcoming issues with data quality and availability to share data on so-called “familiar faces.” Wake County has identified individuals who are frequent consumers of services for homelessness and emergency medical care and may also be incarcerated, but could be better-served less expensively through targeted services.

From more than 150,000 individuals who have received either homeless care or emergency medical treatment or have been in jail, officials were able to identify between 1,900 to 5,200 people who used more than one of these county systems, with 807 appearing in all three, and just 26 deemed “high utilizers.”

The project underscored the value of good, complete data and led to several achievements including a community Behavioral Health Summit and a county Behavioral Health Plan; funding for a new mobile crisis program; grant proposals submitted to further enhance jail behavioral health risk assessments and case management; and ongoing development of a multiservice center for the homeless. Along the way, officials realized they were spending more than $100,000 annually for each individual to “live in our community the way that they’re living.”

“We can do it better and we can do it cheaper through other interventions. There’s still cost to the system but a much lower cost and a much better outcome for everyone,” said Foreman.

During the afternoon session on data analytics, speakers discussed how differing paths had reached somewhat similar destinations, as staffers at their agencies collaborated around looking more closely at data. Carol Burroughs, director of IT at NCDIT’s GDAC, traced her agency’s path from forging a strategic plan for data integration in 2007 through creating CJLEADS, a data integration platform for criminal justice, two years later, to a Health Information Exchange Authority in 2015; and now, to developing an Enterprise Services Data Asset Catalog.

“Whatever we build, we want to be able to share that with other agencies and have the tools be available to everyone,” said Burroughs, who recommended attendees consider data “longitudinally” to drive decisions and policy, and focus on needs rather than time-honored solutions like dashboards that many not be the right solution but just the solution that everyone knows.

James Alberque, GIS and engagement technology manager at the city of Raleigh, described collaboration as one of his personal motivators and discussed how, having adopted a citywide strategic plan in 2015 and an enterprise data management program last year, Raleigh will adopt an enterprise analytics tool in 2018.

“One of the drivers from that strategic plan was to try to transform the culture of the organization to a data-driven organization,” said Alberque. “I think of implementing any new technology as needing the right conditions, and people are one of the conditions. For me, the more important piece is, do you have buy-in at the executive level?” he said while emphasizing the importance of a receptive organizational culture.

Janelle Bailey, business solutions manager for the town of Chapel Hill’s technology services department, talked about her town’s “journey to actionable intelligence,” from embedding data analysts throughout the organization in 2007 to launching ArcGIS online in 2014 and how formerly imbedded analysts in each department formed an analytics group in 2015. Chapel Hill now hopes to broaden the scope of its smart city effort during this year and next.

“You’re seeing a shift in IT where we wear many roles,” said Bailey. “It’s important for IT professionals to build relationships.”

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.