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Invest in Data Infrastructure for Smart, Equitable Recovery

If states invest just 0.5% of their funding from the American Rescue Plan in data infrastructure, they can ensure recovery supports all residents, especially the most vulnerable and historically underserved groups.

text of the American Rescue Plan act
Shutterstock/Tada Images
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in states, the State Chief Data Officer Network lit up with questions from CDOs: Who’s creating case dashboards? How is your state accessing hospital capacity data? How are you integrating local testing site data? While many chimed in to discuss what their state was doing, it became clear that our nation’s data infrastructure wasn’t set up to respond effectively to the pandemic. When the CARES Act passed, governors rushed to use it to acquire personal protective equipment and ventilators, install Wi-Fi hot spots, implement contact tracing and myriad other uses necessary to respond to the immediate crisis.

At the same time, at a grassroots level in the region with the fewest chief data officers, the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP), founded by Stacey Abrams in 2019, was seeing radically different approaches to CARES Act spending by states and localities. For this reason, SEAP and partner organization Fair Count commissioned the Pandemic to Prosperity: South reports to show the data that is needed to enable an equitable recovery.

Very few states leveraged the CARES Act to fund the data and digital infrastructure necessary to not only respond to the immediate crisis, but also to support recovery. The results of this decision continue to plague the nation today as our residents continue to struggle to make vaccine appointments, access critical benefits and understand the true impacts of the pandemic. Through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, the Biden administration has acknowledged this deficiency and invested in improving our nation's digital services through increased funding for the U.S. Digital Service and technology modernization fund, among others. Yet data remains in the back seat. To date, there has been no explicit mention of improving our nation's data infrastructure. Much of the data we rely on to understand the impacts of the pandemic are collected at the state and local levels, then reported up to federal agencies. Further, many of the most significant decisions affecting our road to recovery are made at the state level. If we’re to “build back better,” states must have the data infrastructure necessary to ensure an informed and equitable recovery.

With an influx of funding from the ARP, the Biden administration can support states in using funds to establish data infrastructure, much in the way the Obama administration did with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The ARRA was structured much differently than the ARP, and included a variety of transparency and accountability provisions for recipients of funds. Recognizing that states may not be equipped to comply with these provisions, the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance authorizing states to use 0.5 percent of their ARRA funds from certain programs to support administrative and reporting requirements. Thus, a state receiving $2 billion in ARRA funds was authorized to use up to $10 million for these purposes. Through the use of those funds, states were able to establish the data infrastructure necessary to integrate and compile data on spending and job creation, among other things. Many of these investments live on today as state financial transparency and open data websites, as well as internal financial reporting tools.

Since the ARP is structured differently than ARRA, states have significantly more flexibility in the use of funds. Many will use funds to prop up struggling budgets, deliver essential services and even support businesses. These are all critical and necessary activities. But how will we know that they’re working to support the most vulnerable and those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic? By using just one half of one percent of their ARP funds, essentially a rounding error, states can establish the data capacity necessary to support an informed and equitable recovery. The smallest states will receive approximately $1 billion in aid, and 0.5 percent of that would be almost $5 million that could be used for things like hiring a chief data officer or other staff, establishing the technology infrastructure necessary or possibly establishing training programs for government employees.

But with only half the states having a chief data officer — fewer in the South — and intense competition for funding, governors may not be thinking about data. The Biden administration can be proactive by simply guiding states to dedicate a very small portion of ARP funds to establish data capacity. To ensure an equitable recovery, we must make sure that we know how the funds were spent and whether they supported those who need it most. If we don’t, we’ll be left wondering who got left behind in the recovery.

Tyler Kleykamp is director of the State Chief Data Officers Network and a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. Dr. Sarah Beth Gehl is research director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project.