With the proper tools, governments can integrate datasets, applications, and devices to facilitate internal and external interactions. The US National Institutes of Health, for example, launched the National COVID Cohort Collaborative (just one of many similar measures) to study COVID-19 and identify possible treatments. This cloud-based data-sharing and analytics platform has helped government experts, researchers, and commercial organizations exchange data and observations, revolutionizing the sharing of clinical research.8 Organizations have also used AI-powered solutions to improve their services. For example, a machine learning model and open data were used to identify participants for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trials.9
While commercial companies and universities remain ahead of government in their use of data tools, government’s response to COVID-19 has helped level the playing field. To further this trend, however, government agencies need to tackle challenges such as organizational silos and inadequate data standards.
Balancing data-first with ethics-first
Large, shared datasets can offer valuable information, but their use entails significant risks.10 COVID-19 contact-tracing applications, quickly developed and implemented around the world, represent one of the most ambitious uses of such datasets to date. This data contains detailed personal information that, if leaked or used inappropriately, could lead to serious invasions of personal privacy—and erosion of public trust.11
Beyond privacy issues, however, due diligence is important to avoid drawing incomplete or erroneous conclusions from the data. Large datasets can contain inherent biases or represent only a sliver of a larger and more complex situation. Users drawing insights from them, therefore, need to consider how data is collected and analyzed, including any inherent bias it may contain, and how the story it tells fits into the larger picture. Maintaining such safeguards requires robust policies.
As COVID-19 spread, governments quickly focused on protecting privacy during data collection. Italy’s data protection authority, Garante, adopted a measure outlining how the nation’s authorities would balance the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation with the need for tracing data. The Italian government also fostered a discussion with industry and trade representatives to define a protocol for handling sensitive information used in response to COVID-19.12 Ireland and France adopted similar approaches.13
Data-sharing among national jurisdictions became an immediate priority as well; in Australia, for instance, the federal, state, and territorial governments quickly agreed on secure protocols.14 In the United States, eight states are collaborating with the National Governors Association to enhance their ability to safely link intrastate health data systems.15
The pandemic solidified the need for agency leaders to think about data-sharing and protection policies, building on frameworks such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. The United Kingdom’s secretary of state for digital, Oliver Dowden, has indicated that his government wants the pandemic’s high degree of data-sharing to become standard.16 In Australia, the New South Wales government published a new data-sharing strategy focused on lessons learned from the 2020 bushfires and the pandemic. The strategy aims to ensure that government employees understand the importance of using data to inform decisions affecting constituents and that they have the skills needed to use the data effectively and safely.17
Evolving role of the chief data officer
Increasing reliance on data insights has focused attention on the chief data officer, who is responsible for integrating data and developing best practices.18 The scope of the CDO role has varied widely among government entities, with differing expectations, responsibilities, and authorities.19 The pandemic, however, changed the role almost overnight, permitting CDOs to drive closer integration of data within and among governments, academia, and private organizations.20
In the United States, many state CDOs created COVID-19 dashboards to keep the public informed on the pandemic’s spread. They also leveraged state health information exchanges to provide better insights, published data on the use of stimulus funding, and in some cases, directly led their health department’s data efforts. In Arkansas, the CDO joined the state’s COVID-19 Technical Advisory Board to review and evaluate new technologies for testing and contact tracing.21 As governments move toward a postpandemic normal, CDOs are measuring economic impacts and using data to measure progress and assess milestones for reopening.22
A key feature of the maturing CDO role is the development of talent to enable data-sharing across government. Estonia’s CDO, Ott Velsberg, has appointed experienced data stewards throughout the government, who can ensure the availability of high-quality data and oversee data-sharing.23 The effort involves close collaboration among the nation’s CDO, chief privacy officer, and chief information security officer to ensure that information is used securely and ethically.
The involvement of CDOs in the pandemic response has helped clarify their roles and solidify their importance. In a 2021 Data Foundation survey, about 75% of US federal CDOs said their role was clear, versus just 21% in the previous year. During the same period, the share of CDOs with more than 25 staff members rose from 25% to 40%, while the number of CDOs reporting directly to the chief executive rather than the chief information officer more than doubled.24
The CDO’s maturing role leaves governments better positioned to tap into the value of shared data to provide services, gauge performance, and respond to crises. “The data nice-to-haves are now mission-critical,” says Arizona CDO Jeff Walkover, “and we should leverage this opportunity to build what we need for the future.”25
Governments should focus on three basic areas to ensure that they can use shared data to improve services and be crisis-ready:
- Maintain the emphasis on data technology and relationships established in response to COVID-19. The value generated by these technologies and relationships is too great to let them falter. A data-centric approach provides greater value to constituents while improving performance. And when the next crisis comes, data could play a valuable role.
- Continue to develop proactive policies on data privacy and security. Rather than waiting until the next crisis or privacy issue, governments should continue to develop policies that enable data-sharing within government and with industry and academic partners while addressing ever-changing privacy concerns. As with economic policy, data policy should constantly evolve, based on the changing ways in which information is used. This will require continuous collaboration among CDOs, information security officers, and privacy officers.
- Increase the CDO’s value.Government leaders should continue to support and develop the role to maintain its ability to drive the power of shared data.