How a Passion Project Became Critical to Illinois’ COVID-19 Response

When data sits idle in desktop folders, databases or Microsoft Excel files, it’s hard to see how that information can change lives, save lives and challenge old assumptions.

But it’s clear to Tammy Roust. As Illinois’ Chief Data Officer (CDO), her data evangelist role crosses county boundaries and even state lines. Her primary focus includes integrating systems within the state, training employees on data technologies, and executing strategic and tactical projects that involve data.

Tammy Roust, Illinois Chief Data Officer

There’s even an acronym to sum up these initiatives and responsibilities: CITE (pronounced sit-tay ). It stands for collaborate, integrate, train and execute.

Passion Projects Driven by Data and Customer Experience (CX)

Roust explained how her passion for making life easier for people shapes her data-driven projects. She brings a unique perspective to problem-solving, looking at solutions with a math and science lens but also an empathetic heart.

She was the first in her family to attend college, and she’s experienced the social safety net firsthand. “When we talk about data informing public policy, it’s not an abstract concept to me,” Roust said. “Every policy choice we make is what mathematicians call a constrained optimization problem, where we try to maximize the benefits to our citizens relative to the cost.”

How does Roust decide which passion project to tackle first?

“For me, the easiest way to make the value of data integration obvious is to take the most painful thing that you do and to automate it,” she said.

Internally, her goal is to free up subject-matter experts to focus on what they’re passionate about rather than manipulating data and reporting it.

“A lot of the things we do in the public sector are around reporting,” Roust said. “And by automating those activities, we can develop richer, better analytics, which benefit the staff and management, and the citizen experience, and the public.”

Using automation to track hospital availability utilization is one of her passions, and it’s critical as the nation grapples with COVID-19.

In Illinois, three full-time employees used to gather data about available beds in hospital intensive care units (ICUs). They had to log into an external system that hospitals use to report their utilization data, extract Excel files and manually analyze data before passing it on to others for further analysis. Reviewing utilization data over time required the same manual process — but even more extensive effort.

Those activities are now automated, including information gathering from the external website, the analytics process, the visualization of those analytics and the reporting around the results. Now, employees can spend more time applying their subject-matter expertise to help make decisions that impact the public.

Using Data to Shape Public Policies

The automated data gathering and analysis that Roust is championing is critical to the state’s five-phased plan for reopening.

“Until COVID-19 is defeated, this plan also recognizes that just as health metrics will tell us it is safe to move forward, health metrics may also tell us to return to a prior phase,” according to “Restore Illinois,” the state’s initial framework for reopening. “The plan is based upon regional health care availability, and it recognizes the distinct impact COVID-19 has had on different regions of our state as well as regional variations in hospital capacity.”

Understanding the state’s ability to respond to a considerable increase in COVID-19 patients is a key factor in determining the phased reopening of schools, businesses, gatherings and more. Roust explained that officials considered the daily and historical availability of hospital beds across the regions during various times, including flu season and before and during COVID-19, to understand to what extent hospitals could expand and contract ICU bed availability.

Roust also shared some helpful tips for shaping how you think about data to support CX.

1. “The big lesson that I have is to build your bridge before you need it,” Roust said. The first letter in the state’s CITE initiative represents collaborating. “You need to reach out and make connections and develop trust. And that is true whether you’re a public-sector or a private-sector entity.”

2. Once you’ve developed that connection, then you can start the conversation about what data needs exist in your organization or across agencies. Framing is everything. When talking about data, ask people what they need or what they want to work on; not what they have.

3. “You can have the fanciest machine learning algorithm in the world, but it doesn’t do you any good if your only ally at the agency leaves before the value of that algorithm becomes evident to everybody,” she said. “So you want to start off with the thing that is most annoying, use that to build your relationship and then eventually you can move to the fancy machine learning algorithm if that’s of value to that agency.”

Want to hear from other government experts who are creating better experiences for their employees and external customers? Make sure to reserve your copy of our upcoming resource, “Your Guide to Improving Customer Experience through Inclusion, Engagement & Data.”

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