How Planning to Protect Data Privacy Helped One State’s Covid-19 Response

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By creating standardized data sharing agreements that cover privacy issues unique to each state agency, Indiana officials say they were able to streamline requests to share data with the public.

The daily coronavirus briefing became a familiar part of life for state leaders this year—with governors and top health officials taking the stage to showcase data like new Covid-19 infections or available hospital beds.

Across the country, the pandemic has underscored the importance of data-sharing across state agencies as part of a coordinated response. It’s a process chief privacy officers can help facilitate and streamline, said Indiana Chief Privacy Officer Ted Cotterill.

Indiana already had agreements in place regarding data sharing and privacy protection when the pandemic hit. That foundation helped the state as officials quickly stood up its Covid-19 response team, which was able to leverage the data to make decisions about how state agencies could best respond to the virus.

Speaking at a session of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Cotterill encouraged other states to look at Indiana’s privacy model as a way to help facilitate cross-agency data analytics.

Only about 15 states have chief privacy officers, said Amy Glasscock, a senior policy analyst at NASCIO.

The completeness of data that states are using to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and some data sharing practices have both come under scrutiny. Analysis by one public health group found that states’ Covid-19 data sharing efforts have fallen short, and that states were relying on inconsistent or incomplete data. 

Meanwhile, concerns about privacy led some local officials to stop data sharing efforts in Tennessee. Public health officials in Nashville and Tennessee both stopped sharing the names and addresses of patients who tested positive for Covid-19 with police and other first responders after some raised concern about how the data was being used.  

Indiana’s data analytics office, called the Management Performance Hub, helps craft policies that make it easier to share data by streamlining the technical or legal processes. The state started with an executive branch privacy policy, and then crafted agency specific data sharing agreements that could be kept on file and used as the basis for any new data sharing agreements.

Before the standardized agreements were adopted, getting access to agency data involved traversing a “labyrinth of rules and regulations and forms and contracts” and could take months, Cotterill said.

Keeping agencies at the center of data sharing requests by starting with template agreements they are already familiar with has helped to shift the state government’s approach to enterprise data-sharing practices toward a “culture of yes,” Cotterill said.

“[Chief information officers] need to know they have a partner in privacy that wants to get things done, somebody that is trying to find a way to ‘yes,’” he said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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