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LEARN > Blogs > Contextualizing Data: Institutionalizing Actionable Resources in the Public Sector

Contextualizing Data: Institutionalizing Actionable Resources in the Public Sector

28 Jun 2024
Written by Nathan Varnell

By Nate Varnell


In the information age, it may feel that data influences every aspect of our lives and decision-making. Data is a critical asset, and in recent years the public increasingly demands that legislators and public officials make meaningful use of evidence for effective governance. However, it’s challenging for officials to craft policies based on data that is not readily available or relevant to current issues. To leverage data for societal benefit requires more than just mere collection and analytics. Meaningful use of data in the public sector demands implementing strategic frameworks and continuously fostering data-conscious organizational cultures that position evidence as an actionable resource.

On June 5-6, 2024, the Data Foundation and George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration hosted the fifth annual virtual research symposium, titled Contextualizing Data: Institutionalizing Actionable Resources in the Public Sector. Over two days, the event featured eleven presentations from members of the academic community, practitioners, data scientists, and public officials. The symposium provided a space to showcase a range of innovative approaches being developed by public sector organizations to use technology and strategic engagement to facilitate evidence-informed decision-making.

Presenters were invited to address a range of themes relevant to the challenges of contextualizing data. 

  • Strategies for institutionalizing data-driven decision-making
  • Employing technology and infrastructure to facilitate data use
  • Innovative methods for safeguarding data quality, security, and privacy
  • Case studies of data integration demonstrating impacts on public services and policy
  • Pioneering approaches to engaging the public and key stakeholders in the collection, use, and governance of data

Among the presentations from 2024, many offered key points representative of the overarching issues and themes.  


Institutions and Infrastructure for Data-Driven Decision-Making


Many presenters engaged in dialogue about how institutionalizing a positive data culture necessitates continuously engaging stakeholders and creating infrastructure that can support those efforts. In one presentation, Cross-Agency Data Governance is Essential for Data-Driven Leadership, data system and program administrators from Maryland, Colorado, and Alabama shared experiences and challenges in reimagining the use of their respective state longitudinal data systems. These states are among those leading the nation by formalizing centralized data governance boards, codified in law, as arbiters for facilitating cross-agency data use. To design these systems as actionable resources for agencies, elected officials, and the public, the speakers said they focused on creating “services” out of the systems. Continuous engagement and awareness of public needs encouraged administrators to increase the accessibility of the data systems for public use, in alignment with open data standards. 


Emerging Approaches to Engagement and Data-Sharing


Contextualizing data begins with providing opportunities for learning, as described by evaluation and data officers from four states and researchers coordinating with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies in the presentation Real-World Projects Utilizing Administrative Data: “Show and Tell.” Officials presented different examples of efforts to engage with states around the country to begin sharing data and insights across borders. One barrier to this pioneering work that speakers described is the tension between disseminating open data and the challenge of ensuring sensitive or confidential information is appropriately protected. Building on past frameworks that suggest access and confidentiality can be bolstered simultaneously, states like Wisconsin and Illinois are moving to implement practices that may be models for others. For example, these states are building evidence through multi-state data collaboratives in partnership with organizations like the Coleridge Initiative (note: The Coleridge Initiative is a member of the Data Foundation’s Data Coalition). The Coleridge Initiative facilitated a “tiered-access approach” to bilaterally open-up de-identified data at secure facilities for use by both states in analysis and training. 

Approaches that facilitate improved sharing and use of data, like tiered-access enabled through the Coleridge Initiative and in the partnership of the Midwest Collaborative, allowed state-level administrators to learn from other states’ methods and outcomes. During the symposium, presenters indicated the collaboration helped programs assess the potential scalability of their products because they were equipped with greater context to ask and answer the questions important to their states. Taking the bold leap with Coleridge benefitted both states, and demonstrates the value of data transparency and continuous learning.


Protecting Data Quality, Security, and Privacy


Contextualizing data also means undertaking the hard work of maximizing the quality of public data. Many of the presentations highlighted data management systems, tools, and visualizations, exploring technical limitations and offering recommendations rooted in their experiences of building and re-building products. If creating actionable data resources can facilitate productive cultures around data use, ensuring the quality of data is the bedrock of those efforts. Staff from the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) walked through an approach to achieving effective data systems in their presentation Maximizing the Value of Public Data through Technology and Infrastructure. To the DOES staff, “process is paramount.” The presenters demonstrated their labor market awareness and training vendor awareness dashboards, describing how implementing strong data protocols to mitigate risks of exposing sensitive information or introducing bias — whether human or from applying artificial intelligence — was critical when streamlining diverse and comprehensive datasets. To then usefully contextualize that data requires a detailed understanding of the program designs in question. As the DOES staff discussed in their presentation, effective systems not only protect the quality of the data but also anticipate users’ needs, equipping users with necessary context and transparency of methods to make meaningful use of evidence. If this occurs, strong, iterative, and open data processes may inspire trust among users.




The presentations discussed above capture only a small portion of the thought-provoking ideas and resources shared by presenters during the Data Foundation’s 2024 virtual Research Symposium. The mission of institutionalizing data resources is complex, from building out capacity through partnerships, technology, and high standards of quality, to embarking on opportunities for continuous learning from within and beyond our organizations. The Data Foundation’s 2024 Research Symposium provided one such opportunity for learning and dialogue that will hopefully continue in the months ahead. 

The Data Foundation thanks all who participated, including the expert speakers and audience members, who asked insightful questions throughout the symposium. We also appreciate the George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration for their partnership in hosting the virtual event, with thanks to Director Mary Tschirhart for delivering opening remarks and to Professor Kathy Newcomer for leadership and participation during the event (note: Professor Newcomer is a Data Foundation Board Member). 


The entire 2024 Research Symposium is viewable at no-cost online.



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