The pandemic laid bare major problems with Hawaii’s data collection and provision capabilities, which weakened the ability to make evidence-based decisions on policies and programs in a time of crisis.

Just to name two — we learned that initial contact tracing was done by faxes and an antiquated system of processing unemployment applications failed thousands as the key travel industry unraveled.

A report released last week by the Hawaii Data Collaborative found the challenges go beyond problems with infrastructure, technology, manpower and other resources and extend to the culture — the attitude, values, approaches and a lack of trust— among people who engage with data.

“We need to learn to value data and work with data and trust in data as an important component of our decision-making in a way that helps build a case for increasing data capacity,” said Nick Redding, the organization’s executive director.

He added that we can’t choose between addressing one problem and not the other. Improving capacity and culture go hand in hand.

The report evaluated Hawaii’s data ecosystem — not just government but also nonprofit and community organizations  — “so that the next time we’re faced with a crisis like this we’re not trying to build the plane as we’re flying,” Redding said in an interview.

The nonprofit’s team interviewed stakeholders across the state, including data collectors, researchers, evaluators, leaders, influencers, decision-makers and community advocates.

What Is Data?

The report also  included a lengthy list of recommendations for action, including establishing a chief data officer within the state government.

A previous proposal to do so fell short in the state Legislature in 2019, but Gov. David Ige has said he supports the idea.

“I do support the establishment of a Chief Data Officer position,” Ige told Civil Beat in response to a request for comment about the report. “We’re also exploring the possibility of establishing a Data Office that would focus solely on data, access and availability.”

His office said later that details about what such an office would entail and when it would be established are still being discussed.

Proactive Versus Reactive

The list of challenges noted in the data landscape report was extensive and included many issues that came up repeatedly during the past year.

Among them: antiquated and fragmented government data systems, limited manpower, lack of a forum for stakeholders to share and give feedback, and data not painting accurate or complete pictures of Hawaii’s communities.

“The challenge is that it has to be a strategic priority of the government to proactively manage its data, not reactively,” said Christine Sakuda, executive director of Transform Hawaii Government, a nonprofit organization advocating for government transparency.

Hawaii’s state agencies “reacted” during COVID-19 and weren’t prepared to meet the exponential data demands the crisis posed, she said after reviewing the HDC report.

“During times of crisis, you really painfully feel the fragmentation of the system,” she said. For example, the Department of Industrial and Labor Relations couldn’t quickly mobilize staff resources to assist with skyrocketing unemployment claims because of lack of data.

Being proactive in data would mean having positions within state government, such as a chief data officer to manage and govern data systems and a task force to support those efforts, she said.

“I think that pays off in spades especially when addressing needs of the community, she said. 

Lack Of Trust

A common thread that kept surfacing in interviews with stakeholders was the issue of trust, or a lack thereof, the HDC’s executive director said.

Government agencies don’t trust users, users don’t trust the agencies, and the communities that need to provide the data don’t trust that the information will result in any change or help. Economists and analysts also voiced concerns about trusting how the data will be used.

“Government agencies and officials are often reluctant to share data externally for fear it will only have a negative impact on them,” the report said.

The report says government employees are reluctant to release data because they fear it will reflect negatively on their agencies. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Redding said the organization decided not to use people’s names in the report to encourage them to be candid.

Part of that mistrust comes from how data is collected, and how well or not it represents people and communities — one example being how data portrays Oahu’s westside as impoverished, but people living there not necessarily feeling that way.

“If you talk to folks, this isn’t a complete picture,” he said.

Existing data collection systems tend to put a circle peg into a square hole — measuring local success based on frames of reference that don’t take into account Hawaii’s unique characteristics and challenges, the report said.

For example, many demographic datasets lump together Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander ethnic groups — a standard data practice that federal agencies use. But those groups are vastly different and face different issues.

This is an issue that Hawaii researchers Seanna Pieper-Jordan and Lilinoe Kauahikaua also pointed out in their data justice report, which also called for better data collection and aggregation to ensure that programs and funding for the communities are properly informed.

“We, especially decision-makers, don’t see or utilize diverse cultures as sources of strength, innovation and capital to find and implement solutions for systemic issues impeding marginalized peoples from reaching their full potential,” Pieper-Jordan said.

Sakuda of Transform Hawaii Government said more transparency is needed to rectify the lack of trust among those who engage with data. “Transparency encourages trust.”

But the effort has to be done in collaboration to build a system that works for everyone, she added. “Addressing it together is going to be better than not addressing it at all.”

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