Q & A with Adita Karkera

A headshot of a woman with black hair wearing a cheetah print shirt with a bright red sweater.

Deputy Chief Data Officer,

State of Arkansas

JUST THINK OF all the data your home state has on you—tax records, health records, mortgage records, driving records, law enforcement records. Recently we sat down with Adita Karkera, the deputy chief data officer for the state of Arkansas, to ask what she and her colleagues are doing with all our data. If it’s any consolation, she’s pretty circumspect—wouldn’t tell us a thing about you.

Before we talk about Arkansas and data, tell me about yourself. How did you get into this kind of work?

I grew up in the northern part of India, in a town called Allahabad, which is very close to the capital city of New Delhi. In my sophomore year I made a 96% on the Course for Computer Science. Even with that score, I wasn’t sure that is what I wanted to pursue—I was torn between Commerce and Computer Science. So, I went to college for Commerce but at the same time completed other educational diplomas including Computer Integrated Management and several certifications from Microsoft. My interest was sparked with data and databases. I was the first one in my region to complete a Microsoft Certified Database Administrator certification. This was on Microsoft SQL Server 7.0, which is way back! And from then on, I was intrigued with databases and data.

So how did Arkansas get on your radar screen?

It wasn’t on my radar at all! In 2000 I was spending time with family in the D.C./ Maryland area and a database administrator position was available with the Arkansas Department of Information Systems (DIS) in Little Rock, and I started with a three-month contract. They kept extending my contract, and Arkansas kept growing on me. From three months, I’ve now been here almost 20 years—how the time has flown! I met my husband here, we made a family here, and now this is home.

When you started working for Arkansas in 2000, what were you doing?

I was doing data modeling, database maintenance, performance tuning for operational databases and data warehouses. There were a number of databases that the DIS DBA team was involved in supporting for various agencies. I was helping develop, implement, and deploy those complex systems.

Give me a sense of Arkansas’ progression, data-wise, from back then to today.

Back in the early 2000s, the focus was on the creation of these big traditional data warehouses. This meant we were collecting data from different sources and storing it in one huge database, which met known specific needs but not always the operational needs.

But were you analyzing it at all?

Yes, we were analyzing it back then. We were creating reports on aggregate data. Were we using data to its fullest potential to drive decision-making and influence policy at that point? Probably not. I mean, data is only useful if you use it.

What kind of data are we talking about? I’m assuming it’s related to the state agencies?

Yes, we are talking about state agency data. DIS hosts some data systems for several state departments like Workforce Services, Department of Human Services, Department of Education, and others. APSCN, the Arkansas Public School Computer Network, which includes the school and financial databases for our public-school districts, are all hosted by DIS.

Over time, we’ve used different architectural patterns for these complex data systems. The way this data is managed has also progressed from the early 2000s to today.

How so?

Two decades ago, traditional data warehouses were built for very specific purposes. I’m creating a data warehouse because I have X, Y and Z reporting needs. Over time, we have seen a shift from traditional data warehouses to data lakes, logical data warehouses, and to data hubs where, instead of storing all of the data in one huge database, the focus is on connecting it through all those data sources instead of moving all the data. The important thing, on top of that, is that all the data needs to be governed with the right security, the right authorization, authentication, and compliance for effective governance.

Give me some examples of the benefits of sharing data within the different parts of government.

Government is a goldmine for data scientists, right? Government has all sorts of data relating to a citizen. It has education data, driver’s licenses, tax information, workforce, health, criminal justice, incarceration information, and Medicaid and other state benefit information. And each agency’s data has a meaning coming back to each individual citizen. If you keep the citizen in the center, if you think about this data in a citizen-centric way, you can see how sharing data among the agencies can be very helpful. That same citizen could be moving from early childhood to K-12, to higher education, to driver’s license, to workforce, to maybe getting a fishing license. My point is all these datasets are interdependent, and there is value in sharing data across these different agencies.

For example, data sharing and integration of education and workforce data can help guide effective policy for successful higher education programs and investments. Data sharing to match data on our incarcerated population—people who are in prison—with the people who are receiving unemployment benefits or Medicaid benefits helps us be sure that only eligible people are actually getting those benefits. So the state is saving taxpayer dollars with data sharing. Realigning public policies, fine-tuning programs, economic development tools for under- and unemployment, public safety, economic growth, effectiveness of education programs… I can keep going. All of these require cross-sector data sharing. And data sharing is happening, but there’s always so much more that we can do.

I understand that the year 2015 was big around here. Tell me what happened in 2015.

Act 1282 of 2015 created the Open Data Task Force to start analyzing what is possible with open data, and what are the best practices we should be using for managing state data assets. A special report on potential benefits of a centralized data warehouse for the state was also published by Arkansas Legislative Audit (ALA) in November 2015. Based on the ALA report and other analysis, the task force submitted a Findings and Recommendations Report in December 2016 that fed into Act 912 of 2017. Act 912 created the positions of Chief Data Officer and Chief Privacy Officer, as well as the Data and Transparency Panel to focus on treating data as a strategic asset for government business. That’s when I started to serve in my current role of Deputy Chief Data Officer.

The Data and Transparency Panel (DTP) is a cross-sectional representation of executive leadership and some private sector representation to provide a governance structure for state data and is chaired by the Chief Data Officer (CDO).

When the Office of the CDO was created, one of the first things we did was go on what I like to call “listening tours” to conduct a gap analysis of data and data management needs of the state departments. One of the findings of the gap analysis was the need for a state data catalog.

Agencies needed a common place for finding what data is hosted where to help better understand the flow of information between departments. The CDO’s office created a standardized collection process—a methodology to gather all information needed for the development of the data catalog.

Today, we have an online searchable data catalog with over 15 agencies in it, and we are still growing. I think this is a huge milestone for the state because now we know what data is available and with what governing regulations, and we can now start leveraging it for more data sharing and decision-making. The success of the implementation of this first phase of the data catalog is attributed to the collaboration and hard work of each agency as well as the support from their executive leadership.

You’ve talked about a new “culture of data” in Arkansas. Tell me more about that.

The creation of the DTP and Office of the CDO helped open the door to data sharing by agencies. By instituting the appropriate governance commensurate with other federal and state regulations and required compliance and security framework, together we are working toward more collaboration and data sharing. Earlier this year, the DTP agreed on the need for having a point of contact in each agency for the data management functions of that agency. This point of contact would work in coordination with the Office of the CDO to align agency data plans to state data plans. Additionally, a data governance group has been created to define data standards and data request processes, among other responsibilities. With these initiatives, we’ve seen the data sharing culture flourish in the state. With the right governance in place, we’re focusing on business problems that can be fixed with data and technology.

You’ve been quoted as saying that healthcare and law enforcement are two areas where this data could really come in handy. Can you talk about that?

In the public sector, we are constantly focused on furthering the use of data for better public services and for improving the quality of life for our citizens. And healthcare, law enforcement, and recidivism are important issues for Arkansas.

In 2017, the Criminal Justice Reinvestment and Efficiency Act helped enable us to act and find data-driven approaches to help solve the recidivism problem in Arkansas. And by recidivism, I mean a citizen returning back to the criminal justice system. One of the key deliverables from that legislation was the creation of Crisis Stabilization Units (CSU) as a mechanism for jail diversion to provide alternatives for those in mental health crisis encountering law enforcement. Because jails are not the place for them. Jails are not equipped to handle people with a mental health crisis. They need special care. And if they don’t get that special care and treatment, they have a high possibility of returning back for similar offenses. So it’s a vicious cycle of them coming in and out of jail while dealing with mental health crises.

Today, with Governor Hutchinson’s support, there are four operational CSUs in the state to assist people with mental health crises. It’s mind-blowing to pause and think about the power of data here. We are talking about data collaboration and data sharing between the state and county government, criminal justice systems, law enforcement, judicial systems, hospitals, and community health providers, all coming together for a social cause. That’s what makes data exciting. These are all highly regulated datasets really putting data to work to make Arkansas an even better place to live—for all of us.

Arkansas has made great progress when it comes to data. We’re fortunate to have Governor Hutchinson, who believes in the power of data, data analytics, and computing. In a recent study by Results for America for State Standards of Excellence, Arkansas was rated as a Promising Example of “Data Use.” This speaks for the work that has been done by the state departments in the recent years. I value the support from my agency partners and my executive leadership—Director of DIS Yessica Jones and Secretary of Transformation and Shared Services Amy Fecher—for their support in guiding us to be more data driven. I can’t wait to see how Arkansas’s data landscape shapes in the coming year.