APDU Conference Chair: 8 Tough Questions for Data Owners

Kevin McAvey is Associate Director of Analytics for Massachusetts’ Center for Health Information and Analysis and the 2016 APDU Conference Chair

We can do better. It is what I remind myself each day. As we navigate through this Data Age, as data producers, stewards, and users, where there are rarely precedents or limits or boundaries on the impact we can have, we can do better, we should do better, and we need to bring others along with us.

As my career has shifted from economic development to program evaluation to health care data, APDU has been a constant asset in my work. APDU’s cross-industry, data-focused programming has made me a more knowledgeable user of our nation’s public datasets; has challenged my approaches to data collection, analysis, and dissemination; and has, each year, given me the opportunity to gather with some of the brightest minds in our field to reflect on our collective successes and failures, and to prepare for our shared opportunities and challenges ahead.

My organization, the Center for Health Information and Analysis – or CHIA – was founded in 2012 with the goal of using data to better inform the health care marketplace in Massachusetts. Armed with over a dozen data sources – all of which are made (at least in part) publicly available – including the Massachusetts All Payer Claims Database, unprecedented for its size and scope, a live repository of billions health service records, we set forth to pursue these ends, and like many of you, did so without a roadmap or guide.

Our progress in Massachusetts has been substantial, but not without challenges. We are continually faced with tough choices and questions:
• Who is using our data, our reports, and our products? How are they using them? How can we engage our users to better understand their needs and adjust our work accordingly?
• With data that could potentially reveal so much, where do we best invest our energy and resources?
• How can we effectively leverage existing public data sources to place our results in context, best frame our results for action?
• How do we demonstrate the value of our work, a public good, to justify our budget? To justify our existence, in a world increasingly suspect of “data”?
• When is the right time, where are the right opportunities for partnerships, both within government and with the private sector?
• What is the right balance between data timeliness and accuracy? Between data detail & privacy and data usefulness?
• What is our responsibility to ensure that not only the well-funded get access to data?
• How do we support the release of public data – our data – to best inform better decision-making?

Never before have we had access to so much data – so much information – about our world: how it functions, how it responds, what it is. It is an exhilarating, and humbling, and scary responsibility. We can empower change, but, while change for many may be welcome, eagerly invited, for some it may be viewed with skepticism, disdain, and even resistance.

The responsibility to use data for good is ours, the challenge is ours, and opportunity is ours, and we can continue to do better. I look forward to talking about how with you. Join me this September at the 2016 Association of Public Data Users’ Annual Conference in Alexandria, Virginia, “Using Public Data to Inform Better Decision Making.”