Sep 21 2020

How the Pandemic Opened the Door for Data Opportunities in the Cloud

State and local governments tackle the coronavirus and other challenges through cloud-based data collection and analysis.

Like nearly every city across the country, Chicago has spent the better part of 2020 doing everything it can to battle the coronavirus. As is the case in other municipalities, much of that work focused on prevention and on ensuring city hospitals have sufficient resources to handle COVID patients.

But Chicago has also been trying something different: an initiative led by the city’s public health department involving a cloud-based application called Chi COVID Coach.

The app was launched in April following a month of collaboration with Google Cloud and software developer MTX, explains Raed Mansour, director of Chicago Public Health Department’s Office of Innovation and the city’s Public Health Tech Group Supervisor in its new COVID-19 Operations section. “There were still a lot of unknowns at the time, and people were looking for answers,” he says. Their goal, in part, was to gather data they could use to track the virus and its spread across the city. “But we also wanted to be able to communicate with people directly in order to get them the information they needed.”

For as long as cloud solutions have been available, forward-looking government agencies have had cause to deploy them. But now there is an even greater cause, as the pandemic has scattered workers across regions and simultaneously required public health authorities to collect data over even more disparate areas. Cloud-based solutions have the capability to meet the challenge at both ends, collecting data and centralizing input across an enterprise.

“Cloud is not new, but to this point there’s been relatively slow adoption of cloud services by state and local governments,” notes Tim Crawford, CIO for the advisory services firm AVOA. For some, the delay can be explained by inertia — employees at least could access everything they might require in a central office — while others have delayed their cloud migrations fearing security risks or expense.

“But now COVID has changed everything,” Crawford says. “Their data centers can’t handle everyone working from home. They’re not what you need if you’re a health agency trying to track the virus. So now everyone’s looking for cloud-based alternatives because the way they always did things is no longer an option.”

A Safe and Scalable Solution

For Chi COVID Coach, the app’s capabilities readily demonstrate the advantages of collecting data through the cloud.

The user-facing side of the app tackles three specific virus-related concerns: testing, symptoms and an eventual vaccine. “Once you sign up, you can preregister for the vaccine, and we’ll let you know how to get it when it’s available,” Mansour says. Residents can also use the tool to report any symptoms, “and to get information on virus and antibody testing, and advice on what to do about medical care.”

Users can access the app from any device as long as they have an internet connection. They enter relevant personal information online, and responses from the health department are automatically delivered via text.

For his team, “the most important thing about this software is how we built it out — the fact that it’s sitting in the cloud,” Mansour says. By leveraging a Google service called BigQuery, a multicloud data warehouse with analytics capabilities, the team was able to deploy a solution relatively quickly at reasonable cost, all without sacrificing security.

Raed Mansour, Raed Mansour
The most important thing about this software is how we built it out — the fact that it’s sitting in the cloud.”

Raed Mansour Director, Chicago Public Health Department’s Office of Innovation

“It’s easy and safe for our team to use,” Mansour says. “We have dashboards and visualizations that streamline the workflow and simplify data sharing, and everything is automatically backed up and encrypted at a level appropriate for government.”

Cost savings are realized through the tool’s built-in scalability, and through what the city doesn’t have to do when it comes to the app’s day-to-day maintenance. “We don’t have to ask staff to devote time to doing updates, because that’s all taken care of by the service provider. And if we need to expand,” as demand for the app grows, “we can do that rapidly without adding servers or hardware,” Mansour says.

LEARN: Find out how state governments have addressed legacy IT in a time of crisis.

Real-Time Tracking of Hospital Resources

Cloud-based applications gave Chicago the means to rethink how it was collecting data, and the same is true for the state of Washington, where retired Navy Vice Admiral Dr. Raquel Bono was recently named director of its COVID-19 Health System Response Management pandemic team.

The Washington State Department of Health initially struggled to monitor hospital resources as COVID-19 hit the Pacific Northwest, Bono says. Many frontline caregivers were already using an application that tracked bed availability within their own hospitals, but there was no easy way to tell if a facility’s staffing was sufficient or whether it was adequately equipped with ventilators and personal protective equipment. 

“The question for us at the state level was, how are we going to meet the surge when it comes? We needed a way to collect that information to understand our capacity,” Bono says.

In the end, the department worked with Microsoft to develop a solution they call the Washington Healthcare Emergency and Logistics Tracking Hub (WA HEALTH). Built on the Microsoft Power Platform, which runs on Azure, the system allows clinicians and equipment managers to easily update data on patient numbers and hospital assets through a web-based portal or smartphone. Those figures are then pushed to a number of custom dashboards where health experts can review them at their convenience in nearly real time. 

Bono says the cloud-based system demonstrated its value in the early months of the pandemic by helping the state’s intensive care units adapt to patient demand efficiently and effectively. “It’s exactly what we needed,” she says. “It’s proved to be a really good IT solution for a really difficult problem.”

READ MORE: How can state IT leaders navigate a world changed by the coronavirus? 

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