To Better Address Covid, States Need to Use Data Better

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz at a briefing in May. Minnesota's coronavirus data dashboard is a model for how states can better use data in the pandemic and beyond.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz at a briefing in May. Minnesota's coronavirus data dashboard is a model for how states can better use data in the pandemic and beyond. AP PHOTO/GLEN STUBBE


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Covid-19 exposed gaps in data use for state governments but it also revealed innovative practices that can be applied in the future.

The pandemic exposed many fault lines in our society, including our governments’ failures to share and use data to help keep people safe. From a state government perspective, perhaps no gap was bigger than the lack of real time data on health and economic indicators. However, these difficulties can serve as a major learning opportunity that will help governments respond better and faster to future crises, like another wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

In many cases, this lack of information was due to holes in existing data gathering and sharing infrastructure. The systems that states use to report deaths often rely on hospitals, coroners or even funeral directors using paper-based reporting. When states began working with private laboratories for testing, neither were set up to rapidly exchange data, resulting in reporting delays and changing numbers. 

The rapidly changing demands of the pandemic, combined with antiquated and rigid technology, meant many states simply couldn’t adapt at the pace necessary. For example, many states were unable to identify the populations that were most at risk of the virus, and, thus, unable to take the immediate and appropriate measures to protect them. As Scott Harris, Alabama’s chief health officer, noted “We could do a better job with getting real-time information that would help us make those decisions [about appropriate public health measures].” 

However, states with an effective data infrastructure in place—meaning they had successfully integrated and used data across programs, legal agreements in place to share data, technology to integrate and analyze data and people to oversee and operate these systems—had a different, more successful experience. For example, Indiana, had those pieces in place to allow state officials to identify potential participants in a state coronavirus testing study by linking data from state tax returns, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Family and Social Services Administration. This type of data use should be the rule rather than the exception given the plethora of administrative data state governments collect. 

Relatedly, integrating different agencies’ data sets are critical to highlighting racial disparities. When examining the data, it’s no surprise that the people most at risk from the coronavirus are also those most affected by structural inequality: Black and Latino populations. This disparity is often driven by risk factors, such as limited access to quality health care, less flexible work accommodations and fewer financial resources for necessities like food. If states had better leveraged integrated data it would have driven better insight to the underlying conditions like which individuals live in public housing or were considered essential workers.

But some states are acting and integrating data from different sectors to aid in decision-making: 

  • North Carolina initiated efforts to provide health, education and nutrition services for children and families, including ongoing child care, workforce and parent support in recognition of Covid-19’s disparate impacts on families. Data is being integrated across these programs to support ongoing monitoring and policy decisions. 
  • Pennsylvania identified and aggregated data across the state to create a map of food pantries in the state as a way to improve access to food. 
  • Connecticut leveraged an existing data sharing agreement and infrastructure to match data from its student data system to its benefits systems to allow school children to receive direct certification for pandemic SNAP benefits with no application necessary to receive these nutritional resources. 

While merging multiple state datasets can be complicated, using data for decisions is no longer a behind-the-scenes activity for state governments. The public is judging governments on the extent to which they are using data to make decisions about re-opening. To meet public demand for transparent data, every state is publicly reporting Covid-19 statistics. At their best, this data helps inform the public and state policymakers about the pandemic’s effects on public health, hospital capacity and other key indicators. For example, Minnesota’s data dashboard is frequently updated with information about the state’s response capacity, metrics on social distancing, and the availability of critical care supplies to inform how it is “taking measured steps toward a new normal” in re-opening the state.

But a dashboard is only as good as the accuracy of its data. Ohio has used its existing data integration effort to help speed up data reporting timelines as a way to keep the dashboard up to date and equip state leaders with the most current information. If more states moved to more automated data reporting that uses a common standard, it could increase data quality and create a consistent, accurate national view on progress.

The coronavirus has revealed the importance of our digital infrastructure for delivering services to the public. But more work is needed if state governments are going to make the best use of the data they already collect in order to help residents rebuild their lives. These data investments don’t lend themselves to ribbon cuttings or shovel ceremonies, but they are as crucial to society as roads and bridges. Fortunately, states can do something now. If states spend just half a percent of their funds under the CARES Act on the ability to improve data sharing and use for Covid-related impacts, they would lay the foundation for improved capabilities for the future.

Tyler Kleykamp is the director of the State Chief Data Officers Network. Jed Herrmann is vice president for state and federal policy implementation at Results for America. 

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