AWS Public Sector Blog

How Virginia unleashed the power of data

There is power in data. From pop quizzes in grade school to global annual crop yields, data provides information to empower decision makers. But, in order for data to unleash its power, it must be analyzed, interpreted, and shared with those who need it.

In March 2023, Management Information Systems Quarterly published an article highlighting how the Commonwealth of Virginia harnessed the power of data to save lives before, during, and after the pandemic. In Data is the New Protein: How the Commonwealth of Virginia Built Digital Resilience Muscle and Rebounded from Opioid and COVID Shocks, Professors Monica Chiarini Tremblay and Rajiv Kohli at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business detail how their co-author Carlos Rivero, the former chief data officer of the Commonwealth of Virginia, created a foundation for data sharing in Virginia powered by multiple Amazon Web Services (AWS) solutions.

Establishing a data governance framework for secure data sharing in Virginia

Tremblay and Kohli said, “We found that robust digital resilience emerges when the state government facilitates data sharing and analytical tools while its state agencies and local governments exploit data assets to develop solutions that can be scaled up to the state level.” In Virginia, this data sharing was instituted by Carlos Rivero.

Rivero, now an executive government advisor at AWS, has experience making data work for government. He served at the Federal Transit Administration as the chief data officer and, before that, was a physical scientist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. In August 2018, Governor Northam appointed him the chief data officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia. His first order of business was to create a data governance framework.

In Virginia, the Commonwealth Data Trust is the legal framework that facilitates data sharing between public and private organizations through contractual agreements that define the responsibilities of data trust users to keep trust provided data assets secure, private, and confidential. Data providers that agree to make their data available through the trust are designated as Data Trust Members. They also agree to actively participate in the data governance framework, providing oversight of the chief data officer’s data sharing operations as a designated Trustee. Participation in the data governance framework helps keep data safe and prevents it from being misused. It is an integral foundation because it builds trust with data sources, such as the state health department, private hospital associations, and the department of social services, and fosters their participation in governance activities as data trust members.

“The data governance framework needs to be built on the principle of sharing data, not restricting it,” according to Rivero. “To do that, you need to involve stakeholders in creating this framework. Without the engagement and buy-in of operational data sources, like county health departments, area hospitals, and local police departments, you won’t get access to their data. You need to build trust to broker relationships between data providers and data users.”

Tremblay continues, “Using a research method called process tracing, we found that Virginia could leverage data management, integration, and governance structure to foster data sharing. This led to intelligence creation and value extraction, enabling cost savings, revenue generation, and new services. Carlos leveraged multiple AWS services to help foster robust digital resilience by facilitating data sharing that helped agencies develop scalable solutions.”

Putting data to work for Virginians

“Once we had the data governance framework that engaged high level state leaders in the Data Advisory Commission, agency executives in the Executive Data Board, and agency data owners in the Data Governance Council, we were able to link data collection, storage, and use —as well as the trust of stakeholders— to empower stakeholders to make evidence-based, actionable decisions improving the lives of Virginians,” said Rivero.

“We started with an opioid addiction pilot project in a single town. It was a small pilot, but it demonstrated the ability of data to solve social problems at the community level—linking data from law enforcement, public safety, and health and human services—providing a unified view of the problem from multiple perspectives. Law enforcement personnel could identify spikes in overdoses and send their task force to area hospitals to interview individuals and determine where the drugs were sourced. Health services personnel were able to view toxicology reports to identify the root cause of fatal overdoses and implement mitigation strategies. Community leaders could use the root cause and supplier information to publish press releases and community outreach warning the user community of the potential danger from a specific batch. From January through March of 2019, 28 people in the Winchester community died from fatal Fentanyl overdoses. Due to the intelligence derived from the system, April and May saw zero fatalities. This is how data sharing empowers individuals to take action from the intelligence they receive. From there, we expanded to other towns, regions, and eventually statewide. During that process, we learned about data sources, legal requirements, governance structures, and how to scale our analytics. We kept going with AWS throughout each level because AWS has the tools and services we need and can easily scale up and down depending on demand.”

The next project was the Virginia Workforce Referral portal. The opioid project collected data weekly. This Virginia Workforce Referral portal required daily data collection. It also brought in data from new sources and, as a result, influenced the data governance framework. “By starting small and using cloud-based solutions, we could scale quickly. We were also able to evolve and iterate. These two pilot programs led to creating a foundational data governance framework, established in January 2020, just in time for COVID.”

Accelerating time from data to action with a defined data governance strategy

“When the pandemic hit, we were ready. Because of the established framework, we could onboard private entities, from hospitals to health departments,” said Rivero. “The pandemic was an emergency, and all sides worked quicker than I have ever seen. And because we had that framework in place, a legal review that could have taken days or weeks took only five hours. The next morning, data flowed from a significant private partner into the data consolidation hub.”

The data enabled rapid decision making at the highest levels. “We suddenly had the data to know where cases were rising rapidly. We could instantly see where there was hospital capacity and PPE [personal protective equipment] shortages. We could see testing rates to establish the efficacy of testing programs, see infection rates, and then surface intelligence through our AWS environment to local officials, health district directors, the executive leadership team, and the governor. We were able to shift our financial and human resources away from establishing alternate care facilities at different locations throughout the state to implementing statewide testing. Thus, enabling the governor and his executive team to enact policies with precision as the pandemic affected different geographic areas in different ways.”

The solution involved multiple AWS services. “We used Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), MySQL Database, Amazon Redshift, and various partner solutions to operate and manage the data sharing platform and intelligence environment. Then, we used Amazon WorkSpaces to provide a secure environment for decision makers to access the intelligence derived from the data. This was a unique use of WorkSpaces,” said Rivero. “Not everyone has a secure environment at all times. We configured WorkSpaces as a secure environment, ensuring private data remained private.”

Future-proofing data-driven government response to support citizens in need

The foundational work on building trust, creating a data governance framework, and creating a scalable cloud-based environment enabled Virginia to be responsive in an unprecedented emergency. As Tremblay and Kohli write, “The groundwork for data provisioning and the drafting of flexible digital agreements during the interlude lent speed and agility to creating customized dashboards so that decision makers could act quickly to help the Commonwealth of Virginia rebound from the shock. State governments cannot serve their residents if a shock paralyzes them.”

As to the technology underpinning those dashboards of data, Rivero says, “It was all AWS. I knew it was cost effective. I knew it could build the solutions I needed, and I knew it was secure.”

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Kimberley Williams

Kimberley Williams

Kimberley Williams is the leader of the US state and local government and education advisory team at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Kimberley is a growth-oriented strategist and marketing executive experienced in revenue acceleration, market definition, brand development, product visioning, and technical sales. Over her 25 years of experience, she’s worked with enterprise software giants including Informatica, Curam Software (IBM), PeopleSoft, and Oracle. Kimberley leads a team of former government and education executives, who function as industry thought leaders.