How the Government Solves Critical Problems with Data & Analytics @GovLoop #DataTalk

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In this #DataTalk, we talked with Nicole Johnson from GovLoop about ways the government solves problems with data science.

Here is a full transcript of the interview:

Mike Delgado: This is Experian’s weekly Data Talk show featuring some of the smartest people working in data science. Today we’re excited to talk with Nicole Blake Johnson, Senior Technology Editor at GovLoop, the knowledge network for government. In her role, she writes and leads the development of in-depth reports and online news stories for the government community. Her particular focus is on writing for those in the IT space. Today’s topic is how the government is using data science to help solve critical problems in the United States. Nicole, it’s an honor to have you as our guest today.

Nicole Johnson: Thank you for having me. I’m definitely honored.

Mike Delgado: Can you share a little bit about your role and the work you do at GovLoop?

Nicole Johnson: Absolutely. I’m the Senior Technology Editor at GovLoop. I’ve been here going on three years, and I absolutely love my job. Our focus is on the government community. Our motto is “Connecting government to a group government.” There are a lot of great stories out there.

Yes, government has its challenges, but we’re the pockets of success, where people are doing really neat things others can learn from through the articles we write online — in particular a piece I worked on on data analytics. We do longer-form storytelling we call guides, and we hit on a specific topic. I just wrapped up one about work force reforms in government. That’s a huge thing right now.

Agencies are looking at how many employees they have. Some are downsizing, so it’s a very sensitive topic right now in government. There was a technology component for that too, so tech touches everything. I just try to make it something everyone can be a part of and understand.

I’ve been to too many events in the D.C. area where it’s like the tech community has its own jargon and language. So how do I invite people in? By speaking a language that people understand and telling stories that relate to them and really hit home. That’s what I try to do here.

Mike Delgado: You do a great job. In technology, there’s so much jargon — especially in the data science space or even the IT space. For you to be able to break that down and communicate it to someone like me, I need a definition for a five-year-old. You do a really good job of breaking down the jargon …

Nicole Johnson: Thank you.

Mike Delgado: … and explaining these concepts. Before I came across GovLoop, I never really thought about how the government was leveraging data science. I put up the URL so everyone can check out the articles Nicole’s writing and also the awesome resources available. President Obama was, I think, the first president to bring in a data scientist for the White House.

Nicole Johnson: Yes.

Mike Delgado: That was amazing.

Nicole Johnson: That was huge.

Mike Delgado: Was it Neil Patil?

Nicole Johnson: DJ Patil.

Mike Delgado: DJ Patil was doing tremendous work with Barack Obama.

Nicole Johnson: Right.

Mike Delgado: That was the first time I heard about the government leveraging data science to help solve some problems. Your work is showing how that work is being used by the government. I want to talk with you about the latest report I saw, which was Analytics in Action.

For those viewers or listeners who haven’t checked it out, go to GovLoop and download the Analytics in Action white paper. It explains how government tackles critical issues with data. Can you tell us a little bit about that report, why it was put together and your involvement with it?

Nicole Johnson: Absolutely. This is my third data analytics report. A lot of what I was writing initially was about cloud computing. The government was able to store large amounts of data, but the issue was how to make sense of all the data we have. We have this data here, but it’s sitting in some cloud somewhere. It’s sitting on a server in our data center, but what do we do with it?

Hearing what our community was interested in, we each started writing more about data analytics. I love the definition — you mentioned the Obama administration — because analytics is what helps data come alive. That is such a simple description. Anyone could buy into that. For this report, I wanted to focus on issues we hear about in the news every day.

Whether it’s the opioid epidemic — we’re hearing more and more about that. Veterans’ healthcare — how do we improve that? Looking at the integrity of government programs, or even housing. How do you properly manage housing in the U.S.? I said, “Let me focus on issues that really hit home with people, whether in technology or data analytics. Why would you care about this? Why would you want to read it?” I mentioned the opioid epidemic. You either might know someone or someone knows someone who’s been affected by this.

I thought it was key to show them how technology is playing a role in addressing those issues. The format was a Q and A because I could write an 800-word story in my own words from what I got in the interview, but I wanted to take it straight, directly from what they said.

Some of the key issues we focused on were major challenges at their agency or organization, how they’re using data analytics to tackle them and the outcomes they’ve seen.

One of the frequent challenges was how to get the data. Some other agency has it. I need to work with them to make sure I can get access to the data I need. Then, looking even further into the future, what do I want to do next with the information I have, or what types of tools do I want to incorporate with analytics to get a bigger picture?
I had a great time. Talked about serious topics. Laughed a little, joked a little. It was nice to hear from the people on the frontlines in terms of what they’re doing.

Mike Delgado: It was a fantastic guide. I’m going to make sure there’s a link. For those watching on YouTube, I’ll have the link in the About section. Those watching on Facebook Live will have it in the comments, so people can go directly there to get that report. I love how you touched on some very practical issues. You mention the drug abuse epidemic, housing issues, veterans’ issues. I think these are all things we can all relate to in some way.

When I was reading about the veterans hospital, how many people they’re serving and how they’re trying to help veterans, I was thinking about my own relatives who are veterans and how they need VA hospital help. Thank you so much for doing that. I love the format; the Q and A was great.

It was very helpful to see not only your questioning process, but also the person behind the scenes, directing all this. I thought it was very smart and very well-done. Can you share some of your favorite stories?

Nicole Johnson: I mentioned this is the third one. I’m thinking of stories I’ve covered in here. I’ll take a step back on just stories I’ve written about in general in past guides related to the opioid epidemic. In one of the first guides, I did a case study format. I looked at what was going on in Indiana and at some of the work they’re doing. Oftentimes, when you’re hearing about data analytics, you’re hearing it from a data scientist or a chief data officer. These are very important roles, but everybody is not a chief data officer or a data scientist according to their resume — but they work with data every day.

I talked to one state employee who said, “You know what? I was hearing a lot on the news about what was happening with the opioid epidemic. I love data, so I wondered how I could take this passion for data and help do something about it.” It started with one person, and that’s what I want to drive home. You might be one person, but you truly can have an influence and make a difference.

Just from the passion he had with pulling together different sources, they’ve launched a whole office focused on tackling key issues the state addresses with data. They’re bringing in law enforcement, the healthcare community, people working in drug treatment facilities and firefighters, who are often the first responders on the scene to help address the issue.

First off, even getting those people to the table, speaking the same language … He has a background in EMS, so he was able to understand the lingo and speak their language, but having them looking at the same data sets to start addressing the problem collectively was huge. So that was one story I really enjoyed.

In another one, I talked to a fire chief from Nebraska who’s also a lawmaker. I asked, “How do you do anything else?” He also has kids. I have a 10-month-old and I’m still trying to figure out life and work balance.

He said, “We were going through tough budget times, and we wanted to get more firetrucks. It’s one thing to say, ‘We need more firetrucks,’ but when you can use data to back up and explain why you need more firetrucks … Like, ‘Okay, if we have an issue across town and we don’t have that extra firetruck, here’s how much longer it would take us to get on the scene to respond to that issue.’”

Not only did he take the data, but he presented it in a format anybody could understand. I love visualizations. The way he was able to tell his story and make it visually appealing, he said, was everything. A lot of these interviews I’m doing, even HR, people are using this. Your employer might be using analytics to look at the likelihood someone might retire or someone might leave after x amount of years or what positions will be needed in the future.

I find it’s more commonly used than people think. Sometimes the term itself can be scary, but everybody’s using data and trying to make sense of it. Those are just some of the neat stories I found, just everyday examples where people are using analytics.

Mike Delgado: I think more companies need more people like you, Nicole, to help tell those stories. It’s so crucial because there is the side of data that is very, very complicated, hard to translate, and you need someone like a Nicole to be in your organization. To then help tell that story, to help it make sense because it’s really in the storytelling. For example, this booklet you just produced, Analytics in Action in the Government. It’s through these stories that people go, “Aha. Now I get it.” That’s how you make cases for, like you said, getting more firetrucks. I’m thinking about what just happened here.

I’m in California, and we actually got evacuated because of the fires. It was a very scary time. I didn’t even have a chance to get home. My wife called me and said, “We need to evacuate,” and they had to leave right then. Thankfully, we had resources. They had trucks coming from out of state to help. Just hearing about the work you’re doing, and it’s great to also hear about people coming together from different parts of the government. I mean, it’s extremely hard to do that.

Nicole Johnson: Yes.

Mike Delgado: I think about just in a company.

Nicole Johnson: Right.

Mike Delgado: How many silos there are — and to get different departments talking is hard enough, but to get different government agencies that are so busy as it is to come to the same table to help solve these issues, that’s a beautiful thing.

Nicole Johnson: Absolutely. One of the neat things I found too was speaking to people in the government community working on analytics, how they would look for people with different backgrounds. They had people on their team who were former lawyers, who were journalists, who provide different perspectives, which I thought was very interesting. Everyone didn’t go through a data science program, get a degree or get a Ph.D. Not everyone had that background, but they were able to bring their perspective.

I definitely encourage you, whether you have that title on your resume or not, or that degree to show that you’ve gone through formal training — there is something you can offer and provide to a team, to data scientists, to anybody working with data. Just be encouraged. You have something to offer.

Mike Delgado: Great. I think about all the jargon and how a lot of data science can be very difficult to understand. I’m curious about your process to begin to make sense of everything.

Nicole Johnson: Right. Definitely a lot of research. I love that there are a lot of reports, even reports that the government puts out on data analytics and big data. I referred to that Obama administration report that came out. I wish I had a link to share it with you guys. It really broke down the issues government is having, how government is defining data and data analytics and using them. I’ve read various Gartner Reports. I’ve read anything I can get my hands on.

Sometimes people have their own definitions, but if I can take that and synthesize it into the meat of what you need to know and put that out … My favorite way of learning is through interviews. I love listening to people’s stories, I love talking, so anytime I can, I go to events or get someone on the phone. I love when people invite me down to their office. They get comfortable, we start chatting … An hour later, they’re very excited. For me, it’s just understanding basic terminology. When there’s something hard that I don’t understand, going to someone else … Like if I need to look silly in front of you to make sure that my audience can understand, I’m all for it. It’s about getting my hands on anything I can have. GovLoop is a wealth of knowledge too, so there are people before me who have written stories.

We have a featured blogger program. We have people from government who are experts in these areas where they write content. I’m reading their content, going back through it, digesting it, so it’s a lot of reading, a lot of world news, a lot of in-person events to really understand what’s going on.

Mike Delgado: You’re definitely at the forefront of this. As I spend time reading about the future of work and as artificial intelligence begins to be more a part of our lives and the work we do, having someone like you to be able to help interpret and help organizations move forward is a huge skill. Again, grateful for the work you’ve already been doing, and I’m excited to follow your work with GovLoop in the future.

Nicole Johnson: Thank you.

Mike Delgado: One of your case studies was specifically about how the VA is using data and analytics to help improve healthcare for our veterans. Can you talk a little bit about that case study?

Nicole Johnson: Absolutely. I’m sure many of you have heard about the big scheduling scandal that happened where there were really long wait times, and veterans were waiting for care. It was reported that some men died while waiting for care. I know one of the big focuses is restoring and regaining the trust of veterans as well as the American public. For the VA, some of their main focuses are looking at patient care and what the outcomes are. Is someone in their care getting better, are they getting worse, are they staying the same?

Also, looking at hospitalization rates. How often are people having to come back to facilities? As well as just general operations in the hospital. I think you mentioned the number that I included in the report: 9 million veterans. That’s a lot of veterans. You think about the number of facilities. The VA has over 1,000 medical centers, so when you have so much going on, such a high volume of patients, how do you properly understand and get a big picture of how you’re serving these people?

For the VA, one of the ways they’re doing that is turning to data and looking at how they measure outcomes. What they’re focused on is how to get a real-time picture. They’re in the process of looking at how specific facilities are performing in real time based on key indicators they have. Some of the ones I mentioned earlier, patient outcomes, hospitalization rates. They even have one that looks at how quickly they answer phone calls when patients call to schedule these appointments. They also have another feature where they can set a goal such as, “In six months, we want to be at this place. We want hospitalization rates to be at this number, we want to make sure our outcomes are in this place.” Based on the data they’re inputting, the tools they’re using can tell them the key areas they need to focus on to get to their goal in the next six months.

They can benchmark and look at specific facilities. “The facility out west is doing well in this area. The facility on the East Coast is not doing well. How can we better communicate to improve that?” Because at the end of the day, the veteran does not have to go to the VA to get care. They can go to the private sector, but you think about the service and what they’ve done for our nation. The least we can do, upon them returning or wherever they might be, is to make sure they have quality care and then make sure we’re being transparent about how well we’re serving them.

It’s definitely refreshing to hear them kind of owning up. “Okay, yes, we’ve fallen short in this area. Okay, how do we use data analytics to move forward, to better track how well we’re doing and meet goals?”

Mike Delgado: I love how you mentioned just some of the factors that are being looked at. Everything from the initial phone call, making sure they’re getting answered in a timely manner, and setting goals for making sure veterans are getting the answers they need quickly to the hospital care and getting them out and getting them treated effectively. That’s a beautiful case study. The other one you mentioned earlier is about the overdose problem.

Nicole Johnson: Right.

Mike Delgado: You had a case study. I forgot what state.

Nicole Johnson: Northern Kentucky.

Mike Delgado: Northern Kentucky. The opioid epidemic.

Nicole Johnson: Very interesting case study. They’re doing some really neat things there. It’s the Health Department, and what they’re focused on is how they can provide accurate and timely information to get a sense of what the problem is in their area. Because it’s one thing to say, “We have a problem,” but you have to understand the nature of the problem. What counties are most hard hit? Is it an issue with people who don’t have access to treatment facilities?

How do you break down the problem to show a better picture of what’s going on? They created a story map. It’s a nice link. I’ll share it with you afterward, and hopefully you can get it out. If you start typing in “northern Kentucky Health Department” and “story maps,” you’ll see it. It shows you on a map where the key issues are and where there are locations you could drop off prescription drugs that you’ve already used.

They’re tying in GIS technology to better track not only the data, but also location-based data. They want to effect policy, but they need data and to be able to accurately show the issues. One of the things in particular they want to do is launch a syringe exchange.

One of the problems they were having in that area was a big Hepatitis C outbreak, because drug users were sharing syringes, and that was perpetuating the problem. They wanted to institute a syringe change but there was a lot of … It’s government, so there were a lot of hoops and hurdles and things they had to go through.

When they were able to take the data, visualize it and show the problem was the Hepatitis C outbreak, they were then able to say, “Okay, here’s why we need it, but then let’s target it to the key areas where we’re seeing the biggest problem.” For them, it’s really affecting policy. We talked about funding earlier. That was huge for them. How to show what they were going to be doing with the money they were requesting was another big thing for them.

Mike Delgado: For everyone who’s watching, I want to encourage you to check out GovLoop.com. You’ll find Nicole’s articles there. You’ll find a bunch of different resources, these different case studies. Again, GovLoop.com. That’s the place to go to learn more about how our government is using data and analytics to solve problems happening in the United States.

Nicole, another great study was on what was happening with public housing in New York. I think the stat was there were about 400,000 residents in New York who need public housing. Can you talk a little bit about how data analytics helped that situation?

Nicole Johnson: Absolutely. I am a native New Yorker, even though I moved to Florida, so I like to claim it. I have family in Brooklyn, so shout out to them. We take a step back and think, was it housing, New York City? Those two things in and of themselves are just mind-boggling. It’s hard. Imagine trying to be the landlord for 400,000 people. There’s a lot that goes into that. Really sitting down and talking to the Housing Authority about the key issues.
One of the big ones for them is that every couple of years they have to do an assessment of all the facilities they own, all the facilities housing those 400,000 people. This assessment comes down from the Housing and Urban Development Department, the federal government. They have to show that all the facilities they have are up to code and meet certain standards.

They were constantly getting docked points during that assessment because they weren’t doing the assessments of their facilities in a timely manner. They couldn’t properly assess their facilities. So they broke this down into chunks to really get to the base level to understand the problem.

They started trying to define the issues. Is it that people doing the assessments have too big of a caseload, and they can’t get to it? Do we need to change the way we do our routing? If we have someone assessing a facility on one end of the city, does it make sense for them to then go out to another end of the city and back? Can we be more strategic in that area?

They really broke it down using data. They launched a dashboard and were able to show visually how they were assessing these different facilities and where they were falling behind. When it comes to things like simple repairs, at one point it was taking 21 days. When you get data on the job, and you can actually see what’s going on, people want to improve that area. When you can shine a light on something, then everyone’s really working to make it better.

Now they’re under four days, so they’re being recognized for their improvement scores, and that’s a standard for other Housing Authorities on how to use data to write down the problem and show what’s being missed and not addressed. Because at the end of the day, I know I’m talking about buildings and assessment, but people live in these buildings. Families, infants, elderly. When someone has an emergency, a pipe busts and breaks, it shouldn’t take a week to have it fixed. So what needs to be done to make things better? For them, they had the data but not in a format they could make sense of to make improvements. That was a big area of focus for them. Now they’re asking, “How do we get GIS involved?” One of the things I was really encouraged by is that they’re sending their employees off to do additional training in courses so they can keep their skills up.

That’s exactly what we need to do. If we want to do data analytics, what do you expect if you don’t empower your employees to do it? I like to see that they were not only talking the talk, but they’re putting the money and the resources behind training their people to make sure they can contribute in a meaningful way.

Mike Delgado: Nicole, I love how as you were expressing this case study, when you’re talking about housing issues in New York, you’re often not thinking about the families, and I love how you’ve made a very compelling case by pointing out there are grandparents, there are children, there are husbands and wives, there are single moms, single parents. That humanizes the story. That makes it far more compelling and gives you far more reason to say, “We need to do something.” Because you’re not talking about a house, right?

Nicole Johnson: Right.

Mike Delgado: We’re talking about people who are trying to make their situations better. So the fact that you’re humanizing these stories is very, very compelling. Props to you for doing great work with these case studies.
At the end of your report, I love the fact that you provided some tips on how people can work with data. I wonder if you could share some of your favorite tips, because you had some great ones.

Nicole Johnson: Sometimes, people provide these grand types of tips. I love grand, but I want to share what’s practical and can be done today. One that was just so simple, and I include it as a first tip, is just to roll up your sleeves and dig in. One of the things I always encourage people to do is — somewhere in your office someone’s using data to do something.

It may be a matter of walking over to their desk and saying, “I heard you were doing x, y, z. Do you mind showing me how you did that?” Or “You might be in the middle of a project, but maybe I could get 10 minutes of your time on Friday to see what you’re actually doing.” Don’t be afraid to get started. That example I mentioned of the Nebraska firefighter — he literally downloaded some software off the internet. I don’t tell people in government to do that, but on his own time, at home on his computer. He downloaded software off the internet and was able to plug in numbers and just get started.

Mike Delgado: Love that.

Nicole Johnson: Another one is don’t be afraid of data analytics. Especially if your role or title is not data analyst. I love this post I saw from someone on LinkedIn. He called himself an imposter data scientist.

Mike Delgado: I like that.

Nicole Johnson: Do it. It’s super cool when people say, “I don’t have a degree, but here are the different things I can do.”

Mike Delgado: I love that. That should be a blog.

Nicole Johnson: I know. Another big one was to share your data. You might not be the person doing the actual analysis, but you have a role to play. Especially if there’s information you’re collecting or something you know that could be helpful to tell a bigger story. Help to break down that silo to say, “I think I have something that can contribute to the overall story you’re trying to tell.” I know some people are a little hesitant because they think, “My data’s dirty data” or “We’re not doing so hot. I don’t want some reporter to come and look into the things that we’re doing.”

I love this. One thing my pastor says is “You can’t affect what you don’t inspect.” If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you even move to make the problem better? I love that saying.

Another one I will share is this one. Work with your business owner to understand what information they need to be more efficient. In that case, this is maybe more directed to someone in IT or someone in that chief data officer role. You’re serving lines of business who do work to serve citizens, whether that’s making sure they’re getting their Social Security benefits on time or practical things we all rely on and need every day.

Sitting down to understand the problem, that involves not speaking jargon that people don’t understand. When you can connect with them on that level to say, “I understand you’re working to make sure that school kids have meals at lunch. Here’s how this project I’m working on with data could help you meet that mission.” When you use those key words, I think that’s a way to slide yourself in there and show you really care. Speaking in terms that people can understand is a huge one I advocate for every day.

Mike Delgado: Yeah, I love that, and you definitely did that in this report. It clearly shows. And the way you communicate these stories. You make it so accessible to everybody. It’s a great way to show how government is using data to solve problems and making it accessible to everybody.

Before we go, Nicole, can you share with everyone where they can get this latest report?

Nicole Johnson: Absolutely. If you go to the Resources section of GovLoop.com, there’s a tab across the top as well as on the right side of the screen that says Resources. If you click on that, you’ll see a host of different resources. If you click on Analytics, you’ll see all of our guides related to data analytics. I also want to put a plug in. In addition to these written resources, we do free online training, and we have self-pace courses on GovLoop Academy, where we talk about things like data analytics.

If you’re just trying to understand even the fundamentals, because you want to be able to sit in a meeting and show that you know a little bit about a little bit, then that’s really helpful. It goes both ways to understand what the technologists are talking about, the terms they’re using, as well as understanding the problems everyday people face. I love that resource. All the things on our website are just out there to help people continue to do the great work they’re already doing.

Mike Delgado: Great. Thank you so much, Nicole. Before we go, I want to let everyone know, if you’d like to know more about Nicole’s work, find her on Twitter and LinkedIn. Also, the reports, you can go to ex.pn/govloop. That’s a short URL that will bring you over to our Experian blog post that will have the full transcription of today’s video.
Again, Nicole, thank you so much for your time. Looking forward to staying connected with you.

Nicole Johnson: Thank you, and tell me your stories. I’m here to listen. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Mike Delgado: Thanks, Nicole.

About Nicole Johnson

Nicole Blake Johnson is the Senior Technology Editor at GovLoop, the knowledge network for government. In her role, she writes and leads the development of in-depth reports and online news articles for the government community, particularly in the IT space. She also writes a bi-weekly series on GovLoop.com called “The Intersection,” which focuses on stories at the intersection of people and technology. When she isn’t writing, Nicole enjoys playing tennis and spending time with her 10-month-old Devin and husband, Troy.

Prior to working at GovLoop, Nicole covered government IT issues at FedTech and StateTech magazines, Federal Times, and C4ISR & Networks. Nicole is a graduate of the University of Central Florida, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Make sure to follow Nicole on Twitter and LinkedIn and her articles on the GovLoop blog.

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