How Public Sector Data Sharing Improved Outcomes for the Commonwealth During COVID-19


How Public Sector Data Sharing Improved Outcomes for the Commonwealth During COVID-19

By Alex DerHovhannessian, Sr. Director, Qlarion

Many states were unprepared for the health and economic toll of COVID-19, but ones like Virginia that had already invested in a data sharing framework, have shown they’re better-positioned to handle the rapidly evolving crisis.

To learn about how the Commonwealth is using data to help inform decision making and provide better outcomes for citizens, Qlarion hosted the latest event in its Virginia Data Revolution Series.

During the session, we learned from Virginia’s state leaders about how data can be a force multiplier in how the public sector responds to the needs of the communities they serve during unprecedented times.

How it all started – a framework for a rapid response

Virginia’s first Chief Data Officer, Carlos Rivero, heads the Commonwealth’s centralized data governance office and shared with event attendees how a data trust and data governance model – known as DataSAGE – functions as the cornerstone of the Commonwealth’s efforts to initiate data sharing and improve Virginia’s response to the COVID crisis. DataSAGE is a collaborative effort across agencies to securely link data for sharing, analytics, and actionable decision making.

The framework was designed to address early data challenges but has now matured and can be quickly retooled and reused so that, in the face of a growing pandemic, DataSAGE enabled government leaders to quickly pivot to facilitate the Commonwealth’s response.  To further address challenges presented by COVID-19, the Commonwealth expanded the use of the Framework for Addiction Analysis and Community Transformation (FAACT) platform, Virginia’s cross-agency, cloud-based, data-sharing and analytics platform.

For example, Rivero’s team incorporated data assets from various state and local health and emergency agencies and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association to develop COVID dashboards and intelligence products that gave the governor, cabinet secretaries, and Unified Command the intelligence needed to make better data driven decisions.

Applying lessons learned to support families during a pandemic

Felix Schapiro, a workforce policy analyst with the Office of Governor Ralph Northam, shared one particular professional goal as being the driving factor of how he approaches this work. “If I’m going to spend my life in workforce development, I would like to have a tangible victory goal. And what sounds like the most reasonable one in the workforce state, we should be aiming to eliminate poverty in our community. And if that is not the desired end state, we’re just spinning a wheel.”

He stressed that data analytics is the catalyst for change and reiterated the importance of building these early foundations for data sharing, commenting that the successes realized during the COVID crisis were largely the result of years of preparation on the part of many people across the workforce system and state government.

“One of the most exciting things about being in government at this moment is that we’ve only just begun to realize the benefits that data analytics can have on the quality of life for state government employees but also for the people we serve and the quality of outcomes,” said Schapiro.

Moving quickly to put food on the table during COVID-19 school closures

Jeff Price, director of research and planning at the Virginia Department of Social Services explained one such outcome.

Early in the pandemic, Virginia Department of Social Services experienced a surge in applications for two benefit programs: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – which included subsidies for school lunch programs – and Temporary Cash Assistance for Families with Minor Children (TANF).

Federal rules allowed for policy changes that would ensure that those already on SNAP would continue to receive benefits even as kids stayed at home during the pandemic. It also created an allowance for higher income populations who would typically be eligible for the school lunch program (but not other SNAP benefits) to receive a Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) which ensured families received funding for student meals during the crisis.

The challenge for Price’s team was identifying those families who weren’t on SNAP but may be eligible for P-EBT. Price shared how his team worked to access and transfer data from a variety of disparate sources including the Commonwealth’s TANF, Medicaid, and foster care programs to identify eligible recipients. That information was shared with the Virginia Department of Education who compared the data to enrolment records across 130+ school districts. The output was a statewide list of kids in the school lunch program used by the Department of Social Services to quickly mail out P-EBT cards.

“We had to develop this thing on the fly – including the cleaning of data that came back from individual school districts. But we were able to do this is because of what we’ve learned from doing similar things in the past,” said Price. “The end result is that the data sharing and the matching [between agencies] allowed us to respond to the pandemic I think pretty quickly and successfully. 440,000 new families, which represented about 640,000 kids, were able to get P-EBT cards. And of course, all that money is getting spent at their local food stores and grocery stores which sustains the economy.”

Finding childcare for essential medical personnel during the shutdown

In the wake of the pandemic, data helped address another urgent issue. Early in the crisis the need for childcare, especially among the first responder community, ballooned rapidly. Yet many childcare facilities were closing. To tackle the issue, Virginia Department of Social Services used data from childcare licensing records and surveys to analyze which childcare facilities were closed, which remained open and at what capacity. The department then used geospatial data to map the distance of each open facility from a healthcare center.

Simple in its concept, the map was used by the Virginia Department of Health and others to help first responders find the childcare they needed.

Data catalyzes and changes the citizen experience

To conclude the discussion, the panel acknowledged that data analytics has allowed the Commonwealth to identify those moonshot advances that catalyze and change the citizen experience and outcome. There’s also a compounding effect. As the infrastructure is built up and integrations are added, state employees can build up bigger data sets and conduct more robust modeling and analysis in a much faster way.

“Because we have limited resources, we’re moving to a different approach to problem solving and recognizing that data can identify strategies and pathways that will get us to some of these solutions more efficiently,” said Schapiro.

If you have ideas or suggestions for future Virginia Data Revolution events or would like to be added to the invite list, please email  and we’ll be in touch.



How agencies and departments can access data and engage with the data sharing process

To access and engage with COVID and other data assets from around Virginia, visit the Virginia Data Secure Analytics and Governance Environment. Alternatively, if a data set doesn’t exist for the project you’re interested in, visit the Virginia Open Data Portal to suggest a data asset and explain how it can support your objectives.