Data innovators hit and miss in US states

Data innovation in the 50 U.S. states: “No state gets it across the board.”

By Matt Hamblen

Open data portals and other data-driven innovations vary widely across the 50 U.S. states and even within a state, according to an exhaustive study by the Center for Data Innovation based in Washington, D.C.

Some U.S. states shine at providing online access to public data, but can nonetheless be laggards at adopting e-health records or smart meters or in promoting a thriving data science community.

“The problem is that no state really ‘gets it’ across the board,” said Daniel Castro, lead author of the report, in an interview.

The report, “The Best States for Data Innovation” was released last year.

At the top of the heap, it ranked Massachusetts, Washington, Maryland, California and Delaware in encouraging and enabling data-driven innovation across 25 public policy initiatives. At the bottom: South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi.

While southern states generally ranked lower, proximity to successful states wasn’t a factor. For example, low-ranked West Virginia borders high-ranked Maryland and is just a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital at its closest point. West Virginia “has not made a significant effort to provide public access to information, increase adoption of e-prescriptions for controlled substances, nor encourage the deployment of smart meters, to name a few indicators where it scored poorly,” the report stated.

“A state might have really good data platforms in government and a strong private sector, but not be as strong elsewhere,” Castro noted. For example, New York state ranked 10th overall, but “completely botched rolling out smart meters,” he added. “Or, Delaware has done really well on data in education, but ranks very low on use of electronic health records.”

 Insights from government data officials

Officials from three states with high overall rankings—Maryland, Virginia and Utah—lauded the economic and societal benefits of data innovation in separate interviews while admitting they have faced– and likely will continue to face– some roadblocks along the way.   All three states provide public data portals for a myriad of data sets; topics range from highways to prisons, building permits to traffic and more.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, a portal called dataMontgomery has been in operation for five years, slicing and dicing 200 disparate data sets and presenting it in a multitude of colorful ways.

You can pick a neighborhood to see police arrests updated several times a day; then you can compare one urbanized area of the county of 1 million residents with dozens of other areas, sorting by where the greatest numbers of crimes have occurred, then sorting by the ages of suspected offenders. Insights abound for traffic, water quality, county budgets and spending–even for leaf collections in the fall. In coming years, dataMontgomery will be expanded to 600 data sets.

Montgomery County has been a data innovator in its own right, but works with a Maryland state bureaucracy that heavily promotes an open data movement. Data across many of the biggest counties is federated by the state using tools from tech vendor Socrata and made public. The guiding principle seems to be making the data widely available, then leaving users to draw their own conclusions.

“We’ve worked really hard to make public data available to all. We try to put it in understandable ways so users don’t have to be experts on services or how we do business here,” said Victoria Lewis, data services manager for Montgomery County, in an interview.

“We help provide answers to common questions from the public, but it also gives us in government the opportunity to use our own data…to focus our efforts on how we could be using data to improve services to residents,” she added.

Intangible benefits in early days

Sometimes the benefits of government-led data initiatives and open data portals are intangible. It is often difficult for elected and appointed officials to describe and define data science and its value to average taxpayers, they confessed. Several officials said it is still early enough in the data innovation game that cold, hard cost-benefit analyses have yet to be made.

“Creating a culture of data innovation is the first step in making something work,” said Michael Leahy, acting secretary of information technology for Maryland. “Data innovation is still nascent in the sense that people could analyze the benefit. At this point we’re still trying to grow the base of open data and we haven’t broken it out in terms of cost-benefit.”

Still there’s apparently significant value in making data available to the public in meaningful ways, Leahy said in an interview. “Small businesses can figure out the demographics of their customers and data can provide research for industry to look for new things” such as new services and products, he said.

One exciting initiative is using data to help reduce traffic deaths, he said. In Tennessee, highway officials are looking at when to fix potholes on roads in foggy areas. “They’ve seen if you don’t fix the potholes before they reach a certain size, the likelihood of fatalities goes up substantially,” he noted.

Data can provide correlations that can be meaningful enough on their own. “In the open data movement, we’ve always argued that correlation doesn’t mean causation. You don’t always need causation,” he said.

 Utah drives ahead with an open transportation portal

In Utah, the Department of Transportation (UDOT) has recently invested about $600,000 a year in Socrata data analytics software to better communicate the department’s $1.2 billion annual operating budget through an open data portal.

The investment has been well worth it, UDOT Deputy Director Shane Marshall said in an interview.

“In the past, we’ve done a good job explaining that this is what’s upcoming with our budget, but now we can say to the legislature if you spend X dollars, you will have pavement like this, congestion like this and safety like this,” Marshall explained.

Put another way, UDOT is better able to tell businesses and residents paying taxes that a set amount of funds will result in a certain amount of traffic flow. “The perception that traffic stinks occurs no matter where you go,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do with data is determine that this is what today’s commute is, in terms of a number, and with this new project, this is what you’ll get.”

With better insights from data, UDOT believes it can make a better case to tap into new federal infrastructure improvement dollars proposed by the Trump Administration. More immediately, data insights will help the state legislature make more informed decisions on whether to raise a gasoline tax.

If the data helps UDOT realize it could spend $10 million less on a $240 million pavement preservation program, that would constitute a “huge return” on the software investment and staff development time, he said.

Marshall said he’s frankly been taken aback by some of the data. “Utah’s bridges are in really good shape. I was surprised.”

Roadblocks, and overcoming them

State officials admitted there have been and continue to be roadblocks in getting data initiatives underway. One common concern is getting disparate state agencies to share their data. Another is making sure data kept in separate silos will be put in a common format that’s usable by all. And, storing massive amounts of data from new sources has been and will be a pressing problem in coming decades.

“Leadership from the top is paramount. You have to cut through the chaff and realize that data is considered turf but needs to be shared,” said Karen Jackson, immediate past secretary of technology for the state of Virginia.

Jackson praised immediate past Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe for “having the diligence needed to do things smarter and drive outcomes.”

A 1930s-era Virginia privacy law was often cited by some state agencies to avoid sharing data with other agencies, even when personal information was stripped away. But there have been some creative workarounds. Today, for example, a Virginia resident can go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to receive a birth certificate as well as a driver’s license. An entrepreneur can also do all the paperwork online to start a business.

“When I arrived in my state job, part of the challenge we faced was a lack of standards and databases that had developed over the decades,” she said. “We had to think outside the box to make it truly useful.”

Even a bigger challenge for Virginia and other states in the future will be storing data. “There’s a tsunami of data and it’s coming at private companies and our health care system,” she said. “I have been surprised at just the volume of data, with vast amounts of video and other recorded data. There are smart traffic cameras and meters and more.”

States in the U.S. are facing the same problems with a data deluge that smart cities and corporations around the globe are grappling to overcome.

“With so much data, it’s a question of how you cope with that and make sure you get something meaningful out of it,” Jackson said. “ Vendors are ready to sell states massive storage platforms, but people need to ask if will it last and do what you need for five years. There are questions of how to store data and for how long and who has access to it. It’s important to figure out what to do with it. You have all these new sources of data, so how do you ingest them and control them?”

Matt Hamblen is a veteran technology journalist. He founded in 2017. Please feel free to reach out via email. 



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