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Three Tips for COVID-19 Recovery: Get Your Data House in Order (Contributed)

The recovery from COVID-19 will be as consequential in shaping communities as the immediate crisis itself. To prepare, state, local and community leaders must prioritize their data capacity now to ensure recovery.

A flash flood on a street in New Orleans resulting in extensive damage to homes and vehicles before Hurricane Barry, July 11, 2019.
The U.S. is in the middle of the most severe public health crisis of the past century. But, as we know from other recent disasters, the immediate response is half the battle. If the lessons of disaster recoveries hold — such as post-Katrina New Orleans (where this author was data analytics director from 2010-2017) — the long-tailed recovery from COVID-19 will be as consequential in shaping communities as the immediate crisis itself. To prepare, state, local, and community leaders must prioritize their data capacity now — infrastructure, practices, and governance — to ensure recovery is conducted as swiftly, efficiently, and equitably as possible. 

Consider two groups of public servants. Group A serves on the front lines of the crisis, caring for critical patients, delivering meals, and housing vulnerable populations. Group B is everyone else, many of whom are working from home supporting their colleagues from afar. They include economic development professionals, city planners, data specialists, and the others who work to improve our communities in “normal” times.  

Group A works around the clock doing their best to save lives. When the crisis’ peak passes and triggers the arduous task of recovery, Group B takes over. Just as hospitals prepare by stocking supplies, now is the time for Group B to shore up their data capacity so they can ensure recovery is intelligently executed and delivered to those most in need.  

The historic $2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed is a critical resource, but as experience with post-Katrina New Orleans shows, money alone isn’t enough. Public leaders need data to guide the intelligent administration of funds, to facilitate coordination of governmental and non-governmental partners, to build public trust and to ensure equity. Preparing data is critical in facilitating compliance with grant-makers so more time is spent on the substance of meeting community needs during recovery and less on the minutia of reporting requirements. 

Here are three practical steps public leaders can take now to prepare their data practices for recovery.  

1. Know your baseline. To manage recovery, two reference data points are vital. The first is the landscape of your community before the pandemic. If you can restore economic and social activity to this point, you’ve recovered to a state of normalcy. The second is the crisis’ peak, when economic and social systems are the most stressed. This is the trough from which your community will measure progress. This point is obvious in climate-related disasters: it is directly after the storm makes landfall. In this public health crisis, however, it is less clear.

Now is the time to analyze data on these reference points — one of which we know (early February 2020), and the other of which will occur in the coming weeks or months. In post-Katrina New Orleans, one important data point was total blighted housing units before and immediately after the hurricane so housing recovery could be tracked accordingly. With no centralized data collection of building conditions, New Orleans data professionals, especially Allison Plyer of the nonprofit Data Center, turned to obscure sources, including U.S. Postal Service data, to identify baselines for housing recovery.  

Particularly important in this crisis will be labor market data. Inventory your own administrative data —tax records, business licenses, and fire inspections — to identify the location and statuses of buildings. Other non-traditional sources, such as pedestrian traffic, parking, and social media data, can illuminate how busy those businesses are before, during, and after the crisis.  

2. Open your data. Administrative data is not only important to policymakers, it is also critical to a range of community stakeholders like nonprofits, entrepreneurs, community advocates and partners from other jurisdictions. They will need vital data sets during the recovery, and the best way to share that data at scale is through authoritative, frequently updated data sets on your open data portal. Without a central, single source of data, a patchwork of end-arounds will ensue, creating fragmentation and confusion among stakeholders who need to coordinate to be effective. 

Denice Ross, a fellow-in-residence at Georgetown’s Beeck Center, laid out a data set wish list for state and local governments to publish to help communities recover after disasters. It included:

  • Locations and in-service statuses of social service assets such as nursing homes, child care centers, and health-care providers; 
  • School enrollment; 
  • Canonical, no-frills, parcel-boundary data;
  • Calls for social, emergency, and general municipal services
After Baton Rouge’s floods in 2016, the city created an app using business license data from their open data portal that residents could use to indicate whether businesses were open. It facilitated an organic crowdsourcing effort that provided the community with vital information on the pace of business recovery after a disaster. 

3. Gather and join data on the recovery targets, especially those most vulnerable. Data on the businesses, individuals, and places requiring targeted recovery services is siloed among bureaucracies. Government leaders should think how to link data sets to common entities, such as parcel number or business ID, so recovery is coherent and integrated.

Superstorm Sandy caused more than $65 billion in damages and crippled businesses throughout the Northeast, including the working-class neighborhoods of south Brooklyn and Queens. The New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics created a coordinated, small business recovery effort by stitching together tax, licensing, utility, and parking data (among others) to create a comprehensive picture of businesses and whether they were important nodes of commercial activity for neighborhood revitalization. This intelligence allowed the city to deliver targeted and proactive business recovery services, shorten the recovery time, and ensure resources were used by people who needed them. 

The story of the COVID-19 crisis isn’t over when ICU beds free up again. That is the first chapter. The second and more consequential chapter is the years-long recovery and whether we can make our communities more resilient, healthier, and equitable than before. Now is the time for government leaders to get their data houses in order so recovery is as swift, targeted, and equitable as possible. 

Oliver Wise is the director of Socrata Data Academy at Tyler Technologies. In this role, he helps governments develop the skills, frameworks, and tactics necessary to harness of the potential of data to transform public services. 

Before joining Tyler Technologies, Oliver was the founding director of the city of New Orleans Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA), the city’s first data analytics team. Launched in 2011, OPA leverages data to set goals, track performance, and get results across city government. Oliver’s work in New Orleans has been recognized with an Organizational Leadership Award from the American Society of Public Administration, Certificate of Excellence by the International City Managers Association, an Innovation Award from the Bureau of Governmental Research, Certification from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program, and a Bright Idea award from the Harvard University Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. He was also named to Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers list for 2015.