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Industry Insider One-on-One: Cradle-to-Career Data Director on Work Thus Far

Photo of Mary Ann Bates, executive director of the California Office of Cradle-to-Career Data, next to a quote that reads: “We’re not actually collecting new data. It’s about taking data that already exists within our public universities, our education system, different departments and agencies ... and then linking it together so it can be used to answer questions we couldn’t otherwise answer."
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Mary Ann Bates is the inaugural executive director of the state’s Office of Cradle-to-Career Data, established within the Government Operations Agency (GovOps) by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July 2021 with the signing of Assembly Bill 132. She has had the role since February and was previously a senior fellow in the White House Office of Management and Budget from May 2021-January 2022. Prior to that, Bates was executive director of the North America Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from July 2017-November 2021, during more than 11 years at the Lab.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies, English from Denison University, where she was summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa as well as class valedictorian; and a master’s of public policy from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fellow.

Industry Insider — California: As director of your organization, how do you describe your role? Given your organization’s title and mission, how do your role and responsibilities intersect with IT and innovation?

Bates: I’m the executive director of California’s new Cradle-to-Career Data System. And the vision of the data system is to foster evidence-based decision-making to help Californians build more equitable futures and empower individuals to reach their full potential. And that vision statement really encompasses what we’re doing. To answer your question about what my role is, it’s to help build a new data system that really fulfills that vision. What that means in practice is, we’re doing a number of things. To build a linked data system, we’re taking data in California that already exists but that’s currently siloed in different departments and agencies and we’re bringing that information together. And bringing that information together will let educators, families, researchers, policymakers — all of these different stakeholders — better understand how California is serving and can better serve young people from cradle to career. So, that’s the big picture of the linked data system that we’re building. The second major aspect of our work is around practical tools for students and families. Primarily, which is a student-facing tool for college and career planning that the state is investing in and scaling up as a part of this cradle-to-career effort. So, the two main things we’re building are this linked data system that really improves your understanding of how young people are progressing from cradle to career and what we can do to better support them; and then, these practical student-facing tools.

Industry Insider — California: Can you elaborate on the idea of building a linked data system that is likely the first of its kind in the state and bringing in streams of data that have never been aggregated before?

Bates: We’re not actually collecting new data. It’s about taking data that already exists within our public universities, our education system, different departments and agencies ... and then linking it together so it can be used to answer questions we couldn’t otherwise answer. We’re working with our data providers to ensure that we’re holding this to protect privacy and to ensure security for the data system overall, and especially for the individuals whose data is in it. The data will be available for people to learn from in three different ways. One is with dashboards that are topical. The first dashboard that we’re working on right now is around teacher training and retention, so it will address questions that people have related to the ongoing challenges, the teacher shortages, where are teachers being trained, what does retention look like, and just will illuminate a lot of questions around that. Other dashboards will include things like which colleges do high school students apply to, get accepted to, enroll in and graduate from? Questions that have to do with equity and access, like how many students are eligible for financial aid that don’t apply? These kinds of questions we can answer better if we bring this different data together. The dashboards are going to tackle one topic at a time and are intended to be accessible and useful for anyone, for a wide range of audiences, and to be very accessible and easy to understand. The second way that people will be able to access the data is with a query builder. This is essentially a “choose your own adventure” approach to accessing the data, and letting people build their own tables where they can digest aggregated data from different data points that are already in our data system. And then in addition to the dashboards and the query builder, the third way will be through our research or request process, where researchers can request access to privacy-protected and online data and the data warehouse, on specific topics for specific research purposes, and we’ll facilitate a process for data partners where we can facilitate requests for access to data that our data providers have. That’s the very big picture on what we’re building.

Industry Insider — California: How would you characterize the current status of what is being built?

Bates: We’re in the early stages; this effort just launched. I joined in February of this year, so we’re in the early stages of building the data system. We signed legal agreements with 15 other entities — so 16 entities signed legal agreements a couple months ago to provide a foundation for this work. And we released an RFP (request for proposals) earlier this summer for system integrator work that will provide a foundation for building this data warehouse. That work is at the early stages. The other aspects of our work that I mentioned — the practical tools for students and families — is already up and running and has accounts for about a million students in California already and continues to scale. So, that’s something that already is available to many students and families across the state, and the state is investing in making that available for free from the perspective of school districts so that it can reach all high school and K-12 students in California.

Industry Insider — California: Do you expect other RFIs, RFPs or procurements this year?

Bates: The best place to find out about that is at Cal eProcure. The RFP for the system integrator is the major one that we’ve released so far, and readers can sign up to receive notifications for ongoing opportunities there.

Industry Insider — California: Where do you expect the system to be by year’s end?

Bates: Our major milestone that we’re working towards is to receive initial data submissions from our data providers and to make progress towards building out ... the teacher training and retention dashboard. That was a dashboard that was developed during a very thoughtful 18-month planning process. Plans for it were developed during a process that preceded the official launch of our office. And a lot of input has already been gathered so far. That’s envisioned as the first initial pilot or proof of concept of what dashboards will be built with this data system, so that’s something that we’re working towards. We’re also planning to continue doing significant community engagement and getting input from potential users of the data system to ensure that what we’re building will be useful for, and actually used by, the students and families, as well as by researchers, policy advocates and others who are interested in what this data system will be able to share with them.

Industry Insider — California: Will a great deal of the finished system be public-facing?

Bates: One of the things that I’m really excited about and I’m bringing to this work, and why I was excited to help build this here in California, is that this data system is envisioned to be the most inclusive data system of its kind. And if you look at our governance structure — and I’ll talk more about that in a minute — it was really designed in a way to ensure that members of the public, the communities, not only can provide input but really have a voice and a voting, decision-making role in how this data system will be created and what shape it takes. And what that means is, by definition, a large data system of its kind needs to protect the privacy of the individuals whose data is in there. So, the literal answer to your question is no, the data warehouse will be secure. But I think the question you’re really asking is, will this data system, will the lessons from this data system be accessible to everyone; and yes, the answer to that is, that is a primary focus. We’re focusing on building dashboards that are accessible to anyone having a query builder that’s easy to use and can be used by a wide range of researchers, people who want to do data analysis or anyone who’s just curious to learn more. And then still have the research request process — that’s how I think a traditional data system or data access process works with government. We will have that too but we’re combining it all together to try to ensure that there are ways for, whether I’m a high school student trying to figure out what I want to do in the coming years, or I’m a guidance counselor, or I’m trying to help my niece or nephew, that this data system will be there to help people answer the questions that they want to answer.

Industry Insider — California: Has it been challenging to envision and design a system that will meet those cybersecurity and privacy needs?

Bates: I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in the fact that California is relatively late to the game in building this state longitudinal system in education. Most other states already have done something in this realm, but one of the silver linings to that is that we’re building this new, today, in 2022 and can ensure that we’re really tapping into the best practices, the latest approaches in ensuring that we’re building as secure a data system as possible. And really working very closely with our data providers who are trusting us with their data, to ensure we not only meet but exceed the requirements that our individual data providers have in place.

Industry Insider — California: Is there a particular state or states that inspired the creation of this system?

Bates: I’m not sure I can answer that but again, going back to what I mentioned before on governance and what I think can potentially be unique about California’s (system) ... for cybersecurity, the benefit is we can build things from scratch today and not have to try to modernize ... , but we can also learn from other states and that’s something we’re actively doing. I’m very keen to, and have already been eager to, connect and learn from other states that have gone down this path. What’s unique and, I think, special about the governance structure is — I report to a 21-person governing board. Just under half of those 21 individuals are our data partners, so the entities like California State University or the Department of Education, who will be providing their data to the data system. The other half are publicly appointed members. These are individuals who are appointed by the governor’s office, by the Assembly, by the Senate, who represent the interests of students, families, researchers, the end users of the data system. And they are the ones who decide the strategic direction of this data system. I report to them. Their decisions are taken based on a two-thirds majority vote, so it’s the input from the public members, it’s not just the data providers, ... who are deciding this and it’s not just the public. It’s both of them together who are (guiding) this system and my understanding is that’s a fairly unique governance approach. And it’s definitely shaping how we’re envisioning thinking about the purpose of the system, how we create the dashboards, how we think about user-centered design and really focusing on the needs of the users. The other thing in terms of timeliness that I’ll just mention is that there are also two advisory boards that are defined in the legislation that launched our office — one focused on tools, the other focused on community engagement, and we’re going to be seating and swearing in this advisory board in September. So that’s an additional 32 individuals who have a very formal role to play in providing recommendations to our governing board and to us as an office, on how we can build this data system to be as effective as possible and as useable as possible.

Industry Insider — California: How many Cradle-to-Career staff are working on the build?

Bates: One of the things about this effort is that we’re not doing it alone. As you can imagine, as a new entity, we’re staffing up and we’re building this work together with the California Department of Technology, with the Department of General Services, with CalData — we’re now part of the newly combined Office of Data and Innovation. And then, many of our data partners — for example, (the California Health and Human Services Agency) CalHHS is one of our data partners and has a seat on our governing board — they have also been doing a lot of really innovative things in terms of bringing data together. So, we’re working with all of these partners to learn about what they’ve learned in their individual efforts, in ensuring that what we’re building can draw on that and draws on their talent and ... the lessons that they’ve learned too. ... The Office of Cradle-to-Career Data is an entity within the Government Operations Agency. So, we’re part of GovOps and also have benefited greatly from tapping into the expertise of the GovOps team as well.

Industry Insider — California: From an IT perspective, what has been the most challenging aspect of your work thus far?

Bates: I think there’s multiple ways to answer that. I think what’s really defining about the Cradle-to-Career Data System is that it’s bringing data together that hasn’t been brought together before. And whenever you’re trying to do something new and bring together very large entities — we’re talking about very large departments and agencies — who will be sharing data with each other and with us in new ways that haven’t occurred before, that’s just a tremendous opportunity and with that comes new challenges as well. To just ensure that we’re really thoughtfully planning for how to do this work, in a way that fits with the current workflows or creates newer, more efficient ones. But one of the overarching themes for all of that is the importance of trust. In multiple directions. So, trust with our data providers — and again, going back to the privacy and security question, that’s obviously been a major point of conversation and collaboration to ensure that we’re doing that work well. So, it’s trust with respect to our data providers. It’s also trust with respect to the public and one thing I’m very grateful for is that the entire 18-month planning process that preceded the launch of the Cradle-to-Career office, and the work that we do now, it’s all in the public so our meetings are public meetings, our materials are publicly available so that the public can really see, what are we planning, and what decisions are we making? What choices are we making in how we’re going to define everything, from defining a specific data point for the teacher dashboard that I mentioned, to bigger picture questions about how we’re going to make decisions ... . It’s all out in the open and available for members of the public to dial in and listen in to our meetings. And I think that that’s the most important part and perhaps the most complicated one to navigate. I realize that might not sound like a technical answer, right? ... But that’s kind of the foundation for all of it. Being able to build the system, come to a consensus, move forward expeditiously and build it together all relies on that foundation of trust. And the way that we’ve been approaching that is to try to be as transparent as possible with each other and with the public as we can, as we focus.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.