Ohio to mine government data for answers to tough issues

Ohio to mine government data for answers to tough issues
Posted at 12:59 PM, Dec 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-21 13:00:57-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio is making plans to restructure its vast stores of government data so they can be mined for possible solutions to the state's most complex problems, an initiative experts say would be among the most sweeping of its kind by any U.S. state.

The administration of Republican Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential contender, has spent months laying the groundwork for the effort. It would mark a new approach to tackling stubborn challenges including infant mortality, opiate addiction, hunger, dropout rates and unemployment.

Could missed appointments for government-funded children's eyeglasses help explain lagging third-grade reading scores in some areas? Has the guardian of an at-risk child begun living with a new partner, increasing the chance of abuse? Are quicker recovery times for government-covered procedures at some hospitals something that should be replicated elsewhere?

Those are the types of questions that could be investigated using state data, now collected by roughly 120 agencies, boards and commissions and stored in about 1,600 separate electronic information systems. The plan would be to strip personal identifying information before using the data to spot useful patterns, said Kasich spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach.

"We will be reaching out to innovative companies to help us solve complex problems," she said.

A request for proposals is expected out soon. It will seek firms qualified in critical areas, such as education policy, the environment, public health, auditing, cybersecurity and process automation. Lining up the firms won't cost the state anything, Kalmbach said. Firms would later bid on collating and analyzing the data toward solving specific problems.

"It would be very unique - and very hard to do," said French Caldwell, an executive at Palo Alto, California-based MetricStream who has experience in government cyber-data.

Caldwell said multiple legal protections are in place to block government from sharing any personal information - both with the public and among state agencies. Information collected on vulnerable populations, including children, prisoners and those with disabilities, have even greater protections, he said.

"You really get into a very, very difficult challenge navigating all the labyrinths of data protection and privacy rules when you start trying to pull this data across silos like that," he said. "This is the U.S. We're terribly afraid of Big Brother here. That's part of the culture. From left to right, the one thing everyone's afraid of is Big Brother."

But Ohio's effort comes as governments are striving not to be left behind in a data analytics storm that's permeated online retailing, health care, professional sports and many other fields.

The Center for Digital Government regularly honors government entities at the local, state and federal levels that effectively use technology and data to do their jobs. Ohio was among five states to receive "A'' grades from the group this year. It has already used single data sets to identify trends, including low birthweight babies and apparent doctor shopping among prescription opioid users.

The Kasich administration believes it has navigated the legal issues surrounding cross-referencing among agencies. Similar, though far less extensive, efforts have been successful in Minnesota and Indiana, Kalmbach said. She said Ohio officials will assure data is anonymous before it leaves their hands.

A start on the larger effort came Monday, when a state panel released about $197,000 to a Florida firm to develop a data analytics tool that can accurately identify child welfare cases with the highest risk of "adverse child safety outcomes."

Caldwell said the state may be taking advantage of exceptions allowed when government data is used solely for research purposes. But it will still be tricky to put the research results to use, he said.

"I'm not sure we have the legal or regulatory regime in place to be able to support using all of this data for purposes of delivering public services," he added. "That's one of the things state governments are going to have to look at if they're going to go down this path."