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Transforming Data With Platform as a Service

businesswoman looking at futuristic interface screen.

How one Chicago department reimagined data and analytics to drive decision-making.

Data can serve as the foundation for tremendous change within government.

However, agencies are often overwhelmed by too much information coming from too many sources and siloed systems that hinder data sharing. These barriers make it difficult for them to fully harness data to drive improvements in operations, decision-making and outcomes.

This was the challenge the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) faced as it sought to use early learning data more strategically and create a stronger data culture throughout its organization. The department provides assistance to vulnerable and low-income populations in Chicago via 93 distinct programs ranging from children’s and youth services to senior, homeless, domestic violence and workforce services.¹ The department recently spent more than a year undergoing an intensive data transformation, implementing an analytic data warehouse and employing Microsoft’s platform-as-a-service solution to transform data into a true strategic asset within its organization.

Before DFSS began its data reinvention, it faced challenges with data silos and legacy data management technologies that lacked analytical capabilities.

“One of the biggest challenges for our department is the fact that our data is separated into various applications and locations,” said Kevin Givens, DFSS’ deputy commissioner of IT, contracts and programmatic monitoring. “This information may sit in one database application that’s managed by our IT services department, but then we have data that is sitting in other areas for other program divisions.”

Another major challenge: DFSS relied on 36 individual relational databases that didn’t speak to each other. That meant the department couldn’t look across all its programs and see how outcomes in one social services program might impact another program. The multiple databases also prevented the department from accessing real-time analytics, which meant staffers often had to pull information from these systems into Excel for further analysis.

Givens said the department wanted to improve its use of data and expand its analytics capabilities without completely outsourcing data management and analysis to an external vendor. The department ultimately chose Microsoft’s cloud-based platform-as-a-service solution to implement its analytic data warehouse.


Hameed Ahsan, DFSS’ director of information systems, said the city evaluated several other cloud providers, but chose Microsoft for several reasons.

For one, Microsoft offered robust training and support, including a hackathon that allowed the city’s developers to create applications in a test environment. And its cloud services didn’t require the city’s IT team to write new code or scripts or set up new servers.

According to Ahsan, Microsoft’s offering allows the city’s IT team to administer the services. There is no need for them to set up a SQL server or involve additional Windows, database or network administrators. “That was a key selling point,” Ahsan said.

Microsoft’s platform-as-a-service solution gives government IT teams access to an end-to-end development and deployment environment that integrates server, storage and networking infrastructure; middleware for easier integrations; database management systems; and business intelligence and analytics tools. Agencies can access these capabilities via a pay-as-you-go model, allowing them to accelerate cloud modernization in a more cost-effective way.² Ahsan said the easy scalability offered by cloud was another draw.

DFSS used an array of integrated Microsoft solutions for its data warehouse implementation, including:

Azure Data Factory: A cloud extract, transform and load (ETL) and data integration service that makes it easy to create workflows for transferring and transforming data from diverse systems.

Azure Data Lake Storage Gen2: A storage service for securely building enterprise data lakes.

Azure Databricks: An artificial intelligence and machine learning-based data analytics platform that simplifies the development of data-intensive applications.

Azure SQL DB: An intelligent, scalable relational database service that allows organizations to leverage serverless computing and hyperscale storage options to accelerate application development.

Azure Synapse Analytics: An analytics service that offers data integration, analytics and warehousing capabilities, allowing organizations to deploy data for various business intelligence and machine learning-related use cases.

Azure Key Vault: A key management service that securely stores and controls access to valuable IT assets, such as API keys, passwords and certificates.

Azure Active Directory: An identity and access management service that allows employees to securely access internal and external resources, such as Microsoft 365 and third-party or internally developed applications.

Power BI: A scalable business intelligence platform that allows organizations to connect data from diverse systems, and visualize and draw meaningful insights from this information.

DFSS kicked off its data warehouse project in 2020, beginning with its Children’s Services Division (CSD). One of the department’s first use cases was analyzing early learning data from its Child Outcome, Planning and Administration (COPA) system and other sources to address pandemic-related program gaps. The data warehouse has allowed the department to better understand and assess how attendance levels and other factors affected CSD’s ability to continue its programming during the pandemic.

The data warehouse has also enabled the department to expand its IT capacity and analytics capabilities.

“I can dedicate two hours of my day to the data warehouse and then go back to my routine,” Ahsan said. “I’m able to manage it versus being a full-time administrator of it.”

“It’s provided a strong analytical tool for us to recognize programming gaps, which helps us address equity and efficiency in our services,” Givens added. “It’s a more granular analysis that we haven’t been able to do in the past.”


DFSS is steadily becoming a more data-driven organization thanks to its new analytic data warehouse.

While the department started its data transformation with CSD, it plans to implement the same process in its six other divisions to improve the use of data and analytics throughout its organization.

“The data warehouse developed for CSD is transforming our work,” said Cerathel Burgess-Burnett, the DFSS deputy commissioner for CSD, who is the primary stakeholder for the data warehouse. “It has equipped my staff with a tool that aggregates data from multiple sources, providing comprehensive dashboards that let us look globally across our delegate pool or drill down to individual sites. That reduces the time spent accessing multiple systems and reviewing individual reports.”

Using Microsoft’s platform-as-a-service solution, DFSS has been able to cost-effectively innovate and establish a stronger data foundation that ultimately will improve service delivery.

“Back in the day, when we did on-premises data warehouse solutions, costs were extremely high and difficult to manage,” Ahsan said. “Those costs are now significantly reduced, giving us the ability to maintain our warehouse without having a full-on IT department supporting it.”

DFSS’s data transformation is one meaningful step toward the city’s ultimate goal of enabling a more effective research practice partnership for early childhood education to deliver better outcomes for Chicago’s earliest learners — and integrating data across DFSS, Child Protective Services, the state and other partners to improve overall outcomes for children and families.

“Adoption of these new data-driven practices will enhance our performance across the department,” Givens said. “Transforming the way we input, store and analyze data allows for greater transparency and more effective service delivery across sectors.”

This piece was developed and written by the Government Technology Content Studio, with information and input from Microsoft.