Open Data Helps Target COVID Relief

July 08, 2021 by Lily Rexing

Open Data Helps Target COVID Relief

As in the private sector, government agencies are increasingly finding value in tracking performance and improving operational transparency. Such monitoring and accountability became especially important following the distribution of federal pandemic relief funds from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act programs. Faced with new money, reduced revenue, and increased resident needs, cities and counties quickly developed consistent and equitable strategies for aiding as many people and local businesses as possible.

As the second most populous county in Washington state and one of the fastest growing communities in the Pacific Northwest, Pierce County created plans to address these concerns. The county received $158 million in CARES Act funding – more than half of a typical annual general fund budget. In crafting its public health emergency response, county leaders prioritized allocating and measuring the funds’ impact using accurate, accessible data. 

Pierce County Budget Manager Julie Demuth noted, “County government needed tools that would make it easy to view and search data ranging from population growth to budget expenses to public safety trends. The global pandemic caused an even greater need for accurate, accessible, and up-to-date information.”

Open Pierce County

Pierce County’s open data site, Open Pierce County, was first introduced in 2018 and has been a valuable resource ever since. The website contains interactive dashboards, charts, and graphs to display how each department is reaching the county’s strategic goals. Focus cards help leaders and staff drill down into expenses, for example, to compare total spending across departments or look at specific expense items. Residents, the media, and others can also learn how tax dollars are being spent using powerful search tools. Fortuitously, the site was already in place to aid in decision-making throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“The system played a key role in the Countyʼs COVID-19 response,” said Demuth. “Washington state was the first area in the nation to be hit by the pandemic, and local government needed the right tools to address the growing emergency.” 

Open Pierce County proved especially valuable after Congress passed the CARES Act. The open data platform allowed county decision-makers to view spending in real time, monitor economic conditions, and understand how new relief programs were impacting residents and businesses. Armed with accurate, up-to-date data, departments could quickly make decisions about allocating funding to various programs or make process changes as needed. 

In one instance, county staff observed that the number of positive coronavirus cases for 20- to 29-year-olds was rising, so they allocated funding for a communications campaign targeting that age group. Similarly, the Human Services Department made programmatic changes to expand the rental and mortgage assistance program from 50% of the median income to 80%. Having easy access to relevant data enabled county leaders to approach pandemic relief in a smart, successful way, providing targeted assistance to areas of most need. 

For this digital innovation and dedication to data-driven solutions, Pierce County earned a 2021 Tyler Excellence Award. While the coronavirus pandemic expanded the county’s use of its open data platform, the benefits of enhanced insight along with expanded transparency and accountability will benefit the county and its residents for years to come.  


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