It’s been nearly three years since the world was introduced to the term “COVID-19” and people started using the word “pandemic” daily.

Though there has been much commentary written about the various – and varying – responses state and government agencies took to address the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s only now that enough time has passed that society can reflect and properly evaluate the different tactics used in navigating that time of uncertainty.

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s approach to the pandemic was arguably more successful than others. Unlike some states, Virginia did not construct field hospitals or convert large venue spaces for patient overflow. There were fewer reports of PPE shortages or ICUs maxed out to capacity. And the Commonwealth was able to prevent a complete economic shutdown by targeting restrictions in communities with higher-than-average transmission rates.

What was key to Virginia’s success?

A new research study published by William & Mary Raymond A. Mason School of Business faculty Monica Tremblay, Dorman Family Professor of Business, and Rajiv Kohli, John. N. Dalton Professor of Business, along with the Commonwealth’s first Chief Data Officer Carlos Rivero, proposes that one of the keys to success comes from a surprising source: digital resiliency.

Digital resiliency and its role in state government

Digital resiliency is an organization’s ability to prevail through disruptions, or shocks, by using digital technologies. Governments that invest in cloud-based services, collaboration platforms and security tools will have higher rates of security, agility and speed in responding to crises.

It’s how the Commonwealth launched real-time dashboards within eight days of the pandemic being declared a public health crisis on data such as the number of ICU patients and ventilator supply and usage. It’s also how the state linked data from public and private hospitals, long-term care facilities, and testing sites to track surges in positivity rates and enable better decision-making on steps towards mitigation.

It’s how it monitored viral load in the water supply to determine rising community transmission rates. It’s how citizens were able to schedule appointments for free vaccines at their local pharmacy when an approved vaccine was widely available. And it’s how people who found themselves unemployed because their industries were heavily impacted by restrictions were able to link to the critical resources from the state that they needed for unemployment and to receive financial aid assistance.

Tremblay, Kohli and Rivero worked together to analyze how data sharing played a critical role in the Commonwealth’s ability to take swift action and deliver actionable insights to decision-makers.

“Our research primarily focuses on how the Commonwealth combined public and private data resources using data management, integration, and data governance to foster data sharing across state agencies to respond quickly to the pandemic and ensure citizens had access to the information they needed to make informed decisions and improve overall public safety,” Tremblay said.

Many times, in the face of shock, governments often fail to integrate data from different agencies to respond effectively. In the case of the Commonwealth, it built dynamic capabilities and rebounded from the COVID shock – as well as an earlier opioid crisis – by leveraging statewide data assets, building routines to disseminate data and reconfiguring operational capabilities.

And data was the protein that built its digital resilience muscle.

Importance of public-private partnerships

Data sharing during the pandemic would not have been possible without public-private partnerships between state agencies and private organizations and businesses like hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, testing sites and more.

For public-private ecosystems to work together to build collective resilience, it requires sharing of data and co-investments into digital technologies. These partnerships also require the building of trust and relationships, and the conscious building of capabilities.

The biggest hurdle Tremblay, Kohli and Rivero identified was that of data sharing. In some cases, private entities were hesitant to share their data with the Commonwealth because of privacy concerns, legal reasons or simply because those entities feared that the state agencies would interpret the data incorrectly.

These fears were easily assuaged, however, by the state agencies due to the existing digital infrastructure that it built during another recent shock, the opioid crisis.

Crisis response #1: rising number of opioid overdoses

In 2016, the use of opioids in Virginia was rising rapidly as were the number of fatal overdoses, specifically in southwest Virginia. The governor issued a memorandum of understanding and several executive directives to promote data sharing among agencies, but issues arose because there was no single entity to oversee the legal, regulatory and trust-related issues.

The solution was to create a Data Sharing and Analytics Advisory Committee and appoint a chief data officer for the Commonwealth to serve as a single, neutral, trusted entity to coordinate data gathering and agreements among data owners, provide secure data storage, and build relationships to facilitate data gathering and sharing on an ongoing basis.

One of Rivero’s first initiatives as the chief data officer was to partner with a technology vendor to build a digital information system called Framework for Addition Analysis and Community Transformation (FAACT). FAACT was an inter-agency, cloud-based, data-sharing and analytics platform that integrated data sets from social services, health, education, law enforcement and forensic agencies. It standardized data sharing agreements, developed data standard, and implemented easy-to-use analytical features, reducing the amount of time it took to coordinate data sharing across state agencies.

“FAACT evolved from the opioid pilot project mandated by Virginia’s General Assembly to demonstrate the efficiency and efficacy of sharing data to address complex societal issues,” Rivero explained. “The pilot was designed to test the data trust legal framework, the governance model, and the cloud-based data sharing platform as critical components of the trust and relationship building required to share data and resources among community-based organizations. From this experience, we were able to scale up the capabilities and expand the project statewide which ultimately resulted in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s ability to effectively respond to the pandemic.”

It also allowed state and local agencies to create reports, build dashboards and examine incident maps to quickly locate and provide immediate help to those who overdosed and their families. The combined data sets helped state agencies and task forces to detect the location of overdoses, the drug type and symptoms. All these efforts had a significant impact on the affected communities and contributed to a drop in overdoses.

A use case in building digital resilience

Following any shock comes a time of “interlude” when organizations determine the capabilities needed to be resilient in the long-term, assess for weaknesses, find gaps in the response and close the failure points – in other words, strengthen its digital muscle.

FAACT proved to be integral in lowering the number of opioid-related overdoses and hospitalizations, but a gap remained between data reported and shared between public and private entities. In response, the Commonwealth Data Trust (CDT) platform was created to serve as the underlying technological infrastructure for extending FAACT and the Workforce Referral Portal.

The Workforce Referral Portal is an online platform connecting Virginia residents with government sponsored training, certification, and employment services, particularly during a crisis. As a secure, interoperable, and scalable IT ecosystem, the CDT eliminated the stopgap between data sharing among public and private organizations, streamlined the data agreement process, and de-identified data to ensure privacy and security when datasets were joined together.

“When we talk about digital resilience, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum with one specific crisis,” Kohli explained. “It’s during the interlude between crises that organizations have the power to shore up their digital architecture and ensure the enterprise is properly prepared to take on the next shock. Our research found that the relationships and trust built between public and private entities both during the opioid crisis and after strengthened the commonwealth’s overall digital resiliency, making its response to the next crisis more effective.”

Crisis #2: Managing the COVID-19 pandemic – with a stronger digital resilience muscle

When the pandemic began, it quickly became clear that most hospitals and labs in Virginia are private organizations and protect data about patients and treatment outcomes because of competitive reasons. For the Commonwealth to have a unified response to this public safety crisis, it would require partnerships with hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, PPE suppliers and others.

The governor and the secretary of health and human resources invited those private organizations to share data on the total number of available beds, ICU beds and ventilators. State agencies also launched a multimedia education campaign to communicate to residents and businesses that imposing, curtailing, or accelerating restrictions on public gatherings and commercial activities would be data-driven decisions – fueled by the openly available and integrated data.

The result was a crisis response effort that was more successful than many other states’ responses. Publicly available dashboards allowed leaders in both the public and private sectors to see what was happening in near real-time, allowing decisions about how and when to allocate resources to be made more effectively.

Overall, Tremblay, Kohli and Rivero say the trust that had been built prior to COVID-19 during the opioid crisis and private industry’s willingness to partner with state agencies due to the data governance infrastructure that was already in place is what allowed the commonwealth to not only navigate the shock of the pandemic, but to strengthen its digital resiliency for future events.

Collaborative research opportunities

The study, “Data is the New Protein: How Commonwealth of Virginia Built Digital Resilience from Opioid and COVID Shocks,” is one of four papers published in a recent edition of Management Information Systems Quarterly, a leading peer-reviewed academic journal. Overall, 175 studies were invited globally to workshop and submit.

“It is a humble feeling to be selected as one of the final four studies and to be recognized among leaders in our field,” said Kohli. “What I hope our global audience can recognize is that collaboration on research goes beyond the field of academia, and real change can be initiated when relationships and partnerships are built with a common goal in mind.”

The partnership between William & Mary and Virginia’s Office of Data Governance and Analytics was crucial to the research study.

“The value of the Commonwealth’s response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic were multiplied by this research study which never would have happened without this partnership,” said Deputy Chief Data Officer for the Commonwealth Marcus Thornton. “The ability to forge connections and foster relationships is a key ingredient to uncovering innovative and successful solutions to complex challenges.

“What’s more important is sharing the learning from those experiences with others which starts with collaboration and conversation.”

As a Virginia public university, William & Mary was able to collaborate with the commonwealth. But this is only one example of collaboration between the two.

Last year, students in the residential Master of Science in Business Analytics program conducted a data analytics case study as a capstone project for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). VDOT wanted to know what the highest public safety priority was so that it could invest in an immediate solution. Students took accident and crash data and analyzed it to identify the most dangerous intersection in the state. The data was in GIS format so the Mason School faculty reached across campus to the Center for Geospatial Analysis (CGA) which had access to software that could convert the data into a usable format.

Opportunities such as these facilitate meaningful relationships between the Mason School and William & Mary faculty with state agencies and provide students with access to data sets and projects that prepare them for real world work.

“We hope to grow the number of opportunities our students have access to in both our residential and online programs by leveraging the data and relationships we have with agencies across the Commonwealth,” Tremblay said. “It’s a naturally symbiotic relationship that benefits our students, us as educators and researchers and the leaders and decision-makers who are entrusted with the safety and health of our state’s residents.”

Editor’s note: Data is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.