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Talking Tech? Focus on the Outcome

Talking tech can get pretty dry and dull at times, even for those who make a living in the field. So when many of the country’s top technologists and data scientists discuss what they do, the first words out of their mouths won’t be about the technical daily grind. Rather, they’ll hail the end result.

“Technology is the easiest part. That’s the last mile,” Carlos Rivero, Chief Data Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia, said at GovLoop’s Wednesday Briefing Center.

The hardest part, it follows, is getting people to buy in, and then teaching them the skills they need to capitalize on data, Rivero said.

How Virginia rallied a data movement wasn’t about 100,000 state employees suddenly choosing a new hobby.

Instead, the state set out to beat back the opioid crisis. Data was a major weapon in its arsenal.

That one high-profile project garnered interest across the board. Rivero established connections with a number of agencies, all with a part to play and data to analyze tracking opioid usage in communities.

And while that project remains an ongoing priority, that was just his “in” at many organizations – a starting point from where data’s expanded upward. Since demonstrating the process for turning data into insights, Rivero’s solidified the prominence of data projects for the commonwealth.

“I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a lot of work to hold their hand through the entire process, especially for folks who are a little skeptical at first,” Rivero said.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a similar story. Everyone knows the Census – a government-mandated survey to which people report general information that’s aggregated for a whole population count. But how the bureau markets the survey reinforces that agencies view data as a means to an end, not a standalone outcome.

What those at the Census want people to know – just watch the commercials – is that the survey determines funding and resources for local communities, including for schools and hospitals.

“Engaging outside of our walls: that is the crux of Open Innovation,” said Drew Zachary, Managing Director for Census Open Innovation Labs, which is a small branch of the bureau that uses data, technology and human-centered design to glean insights and apply them to problems at the agency.

One initiative, the Opportunity Project, converts federal open data into usable technology for agencies to mobilize toward problems – one being the opioid epidemic. The Opportunity Project includes a publicly open toolkit for product development using open data and will be rolling out another about tech sprints soon.

“In 2020, we cannot disseminate data alone,” Zachary said.

Recognizing that, Virginia has reached out to communities of all kinds to get them involved in the data generation, curation and analysis. The efforts are twofold: focusing both on the public sector workforce and engaging up-and-coming students to get them interested in data early on. One state initiative even reaches out to rural IT specialists.

A final component that both the Census Bureau and Virginia consider with every data move is trust. Virginia worked with the state attorney general office to build its Commonwealth Data Trust, which maintains a standard for state data.

“We have to initiate trust,” Rivero said.

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