Indiana’s Open Data Hub Allows Public to Address State’s Challenges

Municipalities and state governments tend to generate reams of data pertaining to their residents. However, trying to peel back the layers of bureaucratic red tape to reveal something meaningful from government datasets has been a longstanding challenge throughout the country.

Government IT departments are often hampered by outdated technology and cumbersome chains of command, but the state of Indiana wants to change that with an open data initiativeThe state hopes to revolutionize the way it accesses, analyzes, and visualizes its data through a newly created state agency called the Management Performance Hub (MPH).

Created earlier this year after the Indiana legislature passed House Bill 1470, the legislation established the MPH and gave it the power to collect, analyze, and exchange government data between state agencies. It also made the data available to partner non-governmental agencies, as well as the general public, and created privacy policies that would protect residents’ identities. The legislation now requires Indiana state agencies to submit data for publication on the MPH website.

“It’s really exciting because no other states have an open data bill like we have in Indiana,” says Darshan Shah, Indiana’s chief data officer. “[The MPH] gets to play the role of convener, bringing together data and agencies. It’s a big, hairy, audacious mission: to share data, crowdsource solutions, and be an internal consulting group to state agencies.”

The MPH is stocked with IT infrastructure experts, data scientists, and business informatics specialists. It also has a “business side,” Shah says, in which department officials study specific sectors in order to understand key challenges and how the MPH can help utilize data to solve problems. In all, the MPH employs 29 people and works with a number of other third-party experts on specific projects, Shah says.

One of the MPH’s central goals is to make the data available and “truly usable by the end consumer,” which Shah says is the result of seeing how other open data efforts have fallen short. To that end, the MPH, the local Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society chapter, the Regenstrief Institute, KSM Consulting, and Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration hosted a data challenge last month that offered de-identified Medicaid data to the public, gave them a few days to parse it, and then invited them to submit their findings at a public event in the hopes of surfacing potential population health uses. A total of 25 teams presented their ideas, and two winners were selected.

“Too many times, groups make their data available not thinking about the end user,” Shah says, defining end users as members of the public, the state, non-profit organizations, and tech companies. “Instead, we went out to the community and talked to our healthcare partners and asked them what they’re looking to drive. We started with outcomes in mind and worked backwards to find datasets to support the solutions.”

For example, one group of data challenge participants wanted to know which Indiana ZIP codes had the most emergency room utilization, hoping to adjust the capacity of urgent care centers and redirect resources to the right places; the group won best data visualization for their efforts. Another group from Indiana University won best analysis after it mapped mental health treatment capacity and demand, enabling the identification of gaps in care.

Shah says it blows his mind that a group of IU students was able to combine the state’s datasets with information from external sources to quickly find roughly 20 locations where additional mental health treatment capacity is a critical need. The team was asked where they would locate a new healthcare facility if they could only pick one place, and they had an immediate answer: Northeast Indiana.

“That’s the kind of thing that could be leveraged sooner rather than later. It’s amazing that a small group of students spending a handful of hours analyzing data was able to create a spark that gets people excited to solve a really big problem,” Shah says.

The idea of hosting a data challenge came about when the Family and Social Services Administration realized it was sitting on a load of claims data and asked the MPH for help unlocking it. “That’s the beauty of it—we were able to communicate with providers while creating the data challenge in parallel to bring people to the table. We give them the data and let them come up with solutions.”

All 150 data challenge participants were volunteers, he adds. There were a few small prizes offered, but Shah says none of the participants were there for the prizes. “They’re doing it because they’re excited about data and driving outcomes,” he says.

As part of the challenge, the MPH created Indiana’s first open data hub. All of the state’s available datasets are housed there in an open-source format, where they can be downloaded into visualization tools. There’s also an online form where members of the public can request datasets from the MPH.

Indiana’s open data initiative is innovative enough that Shah says other states have been “making lots and lots of inquiries” into how they can start similar programs. “That’s what I love about this job—there’s such a willingness to share best practices,” he says.

Shah says future MPH data challenges will likely revolve around education, workforce training needs, and the opioid crisis, which has hit Indiana particularly hard. There’s also a financial disclosure project underway with the state’s auditor general; early next year, the MPH plans to start rolling out that data separated by state department.

It’s clear, with his passion for data, collaboration, and transparency, that Shah is the right man for such a huge undertaking.

“Making data open allows us to fulfill the mission of being transparent, but I think about outcomes,” he says. “If we can release datasets and get them into the hands of really smart people—you don’t know where the next game-changing solution will come from. That’s a powerful thing, and it doesn’t break any budgets.”

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