Texas plans to launch an open-data pilot program that will let state agencies share information and collaborate on providing services to residents. Although the trial program, set to start in March, is just a test, a key Texas IT official hopes it will turn into a full-fledged program to deliver services more efficiently.
The goal of the pilot is to spark connections between agencies. That is especially needed in Texas, according to Ed Kelly, the statewide data coordinator at the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR). In an interview with StateTech, Kelly noted that Texas has a decentralized government model without cabinet agencies, and that state agencies have a great deal of autonomy and are usually run by boards, some of which are elected (like the Railroad Commission).
After five months in his post, Kelly said that a statewide perspective has allowed him to “try to centralize” some data coordination and “work and establish relationships that are not there right now.”
The Need to Share
Kelly said there are multiple examples of how government agencies are sharing data to deliver better services. One example is the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), which processes unemployment benefits. The commission has for years paired its own data with data from the state’s Department of Criminal Justice to ensure that unemployment benefits are not paid to the incarcerated. The TWC is extremely concerned about making sure unemployment benefits are properly paid so that claimants get what they are eligible for. The TWC also uses a number of external data sources to ensure the integrity of the program.
According to Kelly, different Texas departments need to strike interagency agreements on how their data can be shared, processed, handled, secured and disposed. Kelly said agencies generally share information through an Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) process or via a flat file database. The ETL process extracts data from the original data sources; transforms the data so it can be stored in the proper format, searched and analyzed; and then loads it into the final target or database. Flat file databases are simpler and require the data to be read into a single computer system’s memory, so the data can be accessed and manipulated. Kelly noted that sensitive data is encrypted, and health and educational data have their own federal protection rules, in addition to state rules.
Kelly has set up a “data governance special interest group community” and recalled that at one meeting, around 20 different agencies were represented. One was the Texas Veterans Commission, which offers benefits to the state’s veterans. Also at the meeting was the state Department of Agriculture, which manages federal funds to provide reduced-cost lunches to children from low-income families, and knows the day-care providers that offer those meals.
The Veterans Commission representative wanted to get access to that information so it could know how to better offer benefits to single mothers who are veterans. Without that kind of collaboration, finding that solution wouldn’t have happened, Kelly said.
Setting Up the Pilot Program
The pilot Kelly’s department is working on was authorized in House Bill 1890, which became law in June 2015. Kelly said the pilot would “establish a data architecture and an ability for agencies to work in a shared environment under appropriate security protocols.”
Kelly said the DIR is currently reviewing demonstrations from vendors and hopes to soon award a contract for the pilot. The pilot is set to start in March and run through August. The DIR will then need to report back to the State Legislature on the pilot’s results by October, Kelly said.
The pilot includes five state agencies: the DIR, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC), the Department of State Health Services, the Commission on State Emergency Communications and the Department of Licensing and Regulation.
How could the pilot benefit the agencies? Kelly noted that the ABC wants to coordinate with State Health Services to get data on restaurants that serve alcohol and have failed health inspections. The ABC can then “reprioritize compliance reviews” based on risk. That would help the ABC devote its resources “to the highest-priority sites,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the DIR is hoping to hold a kickoff meeting in the next few weeks with all of the agencies involved.
The goal at the end of the data-sharing pilot is to “convey to the legislature, both quantitatively and qualitatively, stories of success.” A key qualitative goal is to be able to provide Texas residents a single access point to “find the information they need when they need it.”
From a data governance and management perspective, the pilot could establish a framework agencies can access. The pilot could help agencies identify data sets of high interest, Kelly said, and eventually let them engage in analytics and make better decisions.