How a shift in data operations helped California better serve people during the pandemic
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How a shift in data operations helped California better serve people during the pandemic

January 28, 2022
Xiaowen Cui

There is great potential for data—researchers can predict disease outbreak and allocate resources properly by following trends and analyzing data sets. Larger data sets can improve the predictive capacity of analyses. In 2016, the California Health and Human Services Agency began merging data from disparate programs to better serve the people of California.

All publicly available datasets from 12 departments within the agency have been published using standard data categories and definitions on a single platform. This shift enabled the agency to respond more effectively and efficiently to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responding to COVID-19

When COVID-19 hit, this platform democratized crucial case information for the media, hospitals, community groups and the general public, while still protecting individuals’ privacy. The agency’s internal data-sharing practice also laid the foundation for a vaccine data-use agreement with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allowed California to distribute COVID-19 vaccines effectively once they became available.

In addition, the platform enhanced the agency’s ability to respond to health equity challenges during the pandemic. New types of data sharing and data dashboards, such as, brought attention to health disparities and enabled health officials to target California’s most vulnerable communities for vaccine distribution. Sharing this data on the new open-access platform helped ensure consistency in data reporting throughout California.

This wasn’t always the case. Prior to 2014, 12 different health and human services departments had 12 different ways to make their data publicly available. The silos between departments and even offices made it difficult to transfer data across the agency and reduced data transparency.

Agency leaders recognized the opportunity to transform data operations to make data more accessible and useful for both the staff and the people they serve. Doing so required not only investment in technology and talent, but also a culture shift across the agency.

“Whether providing food stamps or Medicaid benefits, [health] agency departments all serve the same people of California. Shifting from being program-centered to person-centered helped multiple departments coalesce around the idea of data sharing during the pandemic,” said Scott Christman, the former chief data officer at California’s Department of Public Health.

As a result, California established a model for others to update and modernize the ways in which they manage data to prevent serious illness and health crises.  

For more information and other lessons in managing public health data infrastructure, read our “Retracing Steps” report.

Xiaowen Cui is a former intern on the Partnership’s Research, Analysis and Evaluation team.

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