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How state technology chiefs showed flexibility during the pandemic

State technology leaders have taken on new responsibilities during the coronavirus pandemic, including guiding government employees through the process of working remotely and ensuring that their states’ health data is accurate and available to the right agencies. In a panel discussion hosted by Informatica and FedScoop on Wednesday, technology officials from Virginia, Maryland and Texas shared how they have gotten creative in their responses to the pandemic, forming rapid response teams, supporting work-from-home environments and repurposing old data tools to support health care initiatives. 

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Virgina faced FAACTs

Virginia Chief Data Officer Carlos Rivero said during the event that recent expansion of the state’s opioid overdose data-sharing tool, called the Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation, or FAACT, allowed the state to collaborate with community organizations to slow the spread of COVID-19. Virginia has been collecting data on the opioid crisis since 2018 through FAACT, a cloud-based data sharing tool initially used by local police departments and hospitals to observe patterns or trends in overdoses before they happened, saving lives in the process. 

In June, just two months after the coronavirus pandemic began its spread through the U.S., Rivero and Gov. Ralph Northam announced the tool would be expanded to include cases of COVID-19, allowing state agencies and local health care organizations to monitor whether case trends, as well as how much equipment — hospital beds, ventilators and more — are necessary in particular communities. The process has helped the state’s district health directors make more accurate decisions on where to send testing equipment, Rivero said. 

“As we were engaging with our health district directors,” Rivero said, “we wanted to put the data in the health district director’s hands to understand where testing is being conducted and if those tests are adequate for the population that they have.”

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Texas gathered tigers

For Texas CDO Ed Kelly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the “collaboration effect” in government, especially among different state agencies with similar missions.

Kelly leads a data-focused “tiger team” of developers and health care professionals from the state’s health agencies and private vendor partners that has taken responsibility for upgrading the state’s “data ecosystem,” he said, ensuring laboratories can share their COVID-19 test data with the state. It’s not Texas’ first tiger team (there’s also a cloud tiger team), but Kelly said that the group was critical to ensuring the state’s data-sharing tools could keep up with the spread of the virus. 

“Statewide, what we saw was a willingness to share resources, knowledge and best practices within multiple areas across the state,” Kelly said during Wednesday’s event. “A lot of this was planned, but what we had to do was accelerate. We had to migrate data, bring in and upgrade systems and get this thing running in a way that could consume the volume of the Texas laboratory numbers that were coming in.”

Kelly also said that securing bulk purchasing agreements with the state’s regular vendors over the past six months has been crucial to providing more than 130 agencies with remote-work equipment, like headsets, phones and laptops. The Texas Department of Information Resources spent $12 million to purchase and distribute 14,000 devices. 

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Maryland made policies ‘adaptable’

Prior to the pandemic, Maryland’s Department of Human Services had been halfway through the process of modernizing service delivery for its welfare programs by moving virtually all of its health care and justice agencies to the cloud, the state’s human services CTO, Subramanian Muniasamy, said on Wednesday.

The MD THINK project, or Maryland total human services integrated network, comprises data from Maryland human services, juvenile and health agencies on one platform. While the pandemic forced state employees to move online earlier this year, Muniasamy said the modernization “had to keep going” even amid a sixfold increase in food stamp applications and training 1,500 employees to work remotely.

The key, he said, was remaining “adaptable” in changing policies and business processes to handle an influx of benefit applications or enabling people to work from home. 

“We gathered an executive management team and asked, ‘What are the various hardware and software needs to make this transition quicker, is there anything we can leverage with existing technology and what we have in place, and is there any business process change we have to make to adapt to this situation?” he said.

For example, he said, the state waived in-person interviews requirements for food stamp benefits, and by purchasing 3,000 laptops for remote workers and taking advantage of existing co-working tools from Amazon Web Services, Maryland has been able to deploy 90% of its online child welfare services over the past four months by “quickly adapting” to remote training.

“This is one of the greatest opportunities [for government technology],” Muniasamy said. “This pandemic situation really helped everybody start realizing the benefit of technology.”

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