When Governments Act Like Startups

05/22/2015 11:14 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Tucked away in the basement of the Governor's office at the Indiana Statehouse, a place where horses stabled 100 years ago, a team of big data wizards are saving lives.


In March of 2014, the State of Indiana unveiled something new for state government: a Management and Performance Hub (MPH). Essentially, the MPH acts as an innovation lab for the citizens of Indiana. With access to billions of rows of data that had been previously siloed away in departments and locked up in PowerPoint charts and PDFs, the state's tech and BI team are crunching the numbers and looking for big answers to solve some of the most vexing social and civic problems in The Hoosier State.

The first issue the state took on was infant mortality. Nearing the bottom of the list in U.S. rankings on infant mortality, the data geeks wanted to know what they could see in the data that was at the root of such dismal outcomes. Indiana turned to software vendor SAP and signed up for its complete data analytics suite including its high-powered real-time platform, HANA. With some 11 billion rows of data, it was going to take some serious number-crunching to isolate clues that would solve the problem.

When you're talking about infant mortality, the first tools that come to mind are not Hadoop, predictive analytics, R, and Python. With a mandate to leverage data for public good, and access to over 50-60 disparate datasets to investigate, the big data geek squad knew they could study the data to see the patterns no one else had that vantage point to see. The team, led by the Chief Information Officer (CIO) with the support of the Office of Management and Budget and the Governor himself, got a lot of leeway to explore how to tackle the problem. It was an exercise in innovation and exploration that required new thinking and new ideas.

CIO Paul Baltzell says, "We paid some visits to Silicon Valley while we were starting this initiative. We asked ourselves, 'Why can't we do that?'" Turning the basement into a high-powered analytics and visualization laboratory was an afterthought, but turned out to be an effective way to do a lot of the show and tell required to open up eyes within agencies who could benefit by big data analysis. It also engendered excitement and a complete 180 degree turnaround in agency cooperation. "A year ago, we were fighting to get data, now everyone's starting to come in and asking if they can get a license," says Baltzell.

Government IT positions have never been sexy, and most are relegated to run-of-the-mill support assignments. This new initiative has Baltzell's people energized. It's all the thrill of problem-solving and design thinking you'd find in a venture-backed startup, yet with the security, focus and large budget of a government agency.

On infant mortality, the results are spectacular -- including unintended cost dividends that measure in the hundreds of millions. The data even revealed higher effect ratios that experts in the field had missed. "We were optimistic, but we didn't know how it was going to go or what we were going to find," says Sara Marshall, the state's Director of BI and Analytics. But, after a year of analyzing the data, the state discovered a number of red flags and early warning prevention ideas that could stem the tide dramatically for infant deaths. "These were great results, says Marshall. The primary benefit is we can make programmatic change now. We know now that we can change infant mortality." Some of the results from this focused data analysis led directly to an additional $13.5 million in programs that target the identified sub-populations that surfaced in the data. The specific tailoring of programs to populations that were previously unknown will vastly improve the service level of the Indiana State Department of Health. These results have spawned a multiple of new use cases the state is looking at, including a new focus on offender recidivism.

In the same way big data analysis can predict spending patterns and customer habits, it can yield insights that pay tremendous social dividends. The State of Indiana is in the vanguard with this approach; it's only a matter of time before other states follow suit. And, unlike VC-backed startups that are rewarded for competition, the best data-driven outcomes in these innovative government agencies will be shared state-to-state leading to improved outcomes everywhere.