The pandemic taught the State Department a few things about its enterprise data management

(U.S. Department of State / Flickr)

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At the beginning of 2020, State Department officials thought they had a solid plan for improving enterprise data management. After the coronavirus pandemic began, they quickly figured out that the plan had some holes in it.

The global health crisis exposed duplicative efforts and other areas for improvement. Different arms of the State Department were “wasting a lot of time” gathering the same COVID-19 data, when the process could be streamlined with the proper technologies and policies in place, said acting Chief Data Officer Janice deGarmo.

“I think it’s fair to acknowledge that we at the Department of State could’ve been a bit more mature and further along in our data management efforts prior to the pandemic,” deGarmo said during the Informatica Data in Action Summit on Wednesday. “While we had a lot of micro-progress throughout the different elements in the department, this pandemic really helped elevate the need for enterprise data management.”

The department needed to simultaneously improve its software for collecting and storing data and its governance of the process. Both had been neglected because officials had spent the previous two years focused on data analytics, including the launch of the Center for Analytics, deGarmo said.

Various department components had begun working on reference and master data management, as well as improving end-data quality. But officials figured out that it was necessary to eliminate technical debt departmentwide so components could pull in COVID-19 data “faster and smarter” from external sources, deGarmo said.

The department further began building a governance process around collecting, inventorying and cataloguing the data so it could easily share reports from, say, Johns Hopkins University to all its posts, including foreign embassies.

An Enterprise Data Council was established within the State Department’s effort to implement the Trump administration’s Federal Data Strategy, which the department has since used to prioritize coronavirus data.

“We are in the process of creating the first-ever enterprise data strategy, undergoing a data maturity assessment,” deGarmo said. “We also are publishing our first data catalogue ever.”

Adhering to the Federal Data Strategy has also helped the department improve its workforce’s data acumen. The Center for Analytics — in conjunction with the State Department’s training arm, the Foreign Service Institute — created a series of courses covering executive data skills, data visualization and programming in the R language. Those courses “filled right away,” deGarmo said. Now the department is working to scale training.

“If we really want to infuse data into everyday decision making at the department, and elevate data in diplomacy, we have to ensure all of our staff and our officers worldwide know how to use it,” deGarmo said.

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Center for Analytics (CfA), coronavirus, Federal Data Strategy, Informatica, Janice deGarmo, State Department
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