Modernizing Data Systems Matters for Integrating Early Childhood Data

Integrating data from multiple sources really matters in a fragmented system like early childhood
Blog Post
June 27, 2022

There’s plenty of data showing that high-quality services for children ages birth to five is a great investment. And there’s also plenty of data to indicate that not nearly enough children are receiving the services they might need – Head Start and Early Head Start, state pre-K, subsidized child care, special education, home visiting, and more.

But there’s so much we don’t know about the early childhood system that we need to. And there’s so much information that, if we had it, we could use to improve our state and local systems. Which children are in which services? What are the long-term impacts of those experiences? These questions and more are front and center for early childhood leaders in states around the country.

Improved technology can help us to know more, if we use it correctly. States developing Early Childhood Integrated Data Systems (ECIDS) should take advantage of cloud-based technology to improve their data integration processes – and save money in the process. My new paper – The Importance of Data Modernization in Early Childhood Integrated Data Systems – explains the benefits of using the cloud in developing an ECIDS, and identifies the practical steps states need to take to implement a cloud-based ECIDS.

Integrating data from multiple sources really matters in a fragmented system like early childhood. Most states can provide data about each of their early childhood funding streams, but can’t provide data showing the interaction among those programs – including which kids took advantage of multiple services. That information is incredibly important both for the operation of the system right now, and for understanding how current investments affect long-term outcomes.

An ECIDS can pull together data from multiple sources and integrate it, allowing the state to then analyze its early childhood system in a more holistic manner. States have been working to develop ECIDS for more than a decade, building on pioneering work conducted in Pennsylvania between 2003 and 2011. The Early Learning Challenge – a federal grant program in the Obama administration – provided meaningful funding that states used to support data integration efforts.

But a lot of those Early Learning Challenge efforts struggled, because the technology at the time made it difficult to integrate data. One common problem was that data integration required a great deal of data cleanup. States would establish a server to host data integration, and agencies would have to do a lot of work on their data before they could even send it on to the server. Then, once it got to the server, the processes for integrating and extracting data added substantially more time and expense.

Many of the Early Learning Challenge-funded data integration efforts struggled to produce actual integrated data – and if states weren’t using integrated data for meaningful change, it was sometimes hard to justify using state funds to continue the work when the grants ran out. Some states pressed forward, but in others the initiatives ran aground.

Cloud technology doesn’t eliminate the need for data integration work, but it does allow it to happen much faster – and less expensively. Moreover, the cloud has advanced analytic tools that make it easier for states to actually use data. And because many states are wrestling with the same kinds of questions, states can share analytic tools in ways that reduce the expense to each.

Cloud technology is also generally more secure and makes it easier to protect individual privacy. Cloud storage space is provided by sophisticated commercial providers with strong incentives to keep out unwanted invaders; that’s likely to be a better security solution than outdated technology dependent on state government appropriations for security updates. And the cloud allows for sophisticated access control protocols that make it easier for researchers to examine de-identified data in a state-controlled environment, rather than having the state ship data to researchers for them to analyze.

While the cloud has great potential, states may not currently have in place the human systems needed to manage it effectively. A change in technology can have a disruptive effect on how programmatic leaders operate, to say nothing of the state’s IT infrastructure. Real leadership is required to manage the process of transition and put in place the governance and management structures needed for data integration to be successful.

Moreover, states will need analytic capacity to make sense of the new information they’re producing. That includes not only state-level analysis, but support for community-level work that leverages information to make change at the local level. That will also take resources.

But the good news is that overall, a cloud-based ECIDS is much cheaper than what states have previously attempted. Cloud storage is purchased in a competitive market and is “pay as you go;” that contrasts favorably with the expensive infrastructure states have previously had to build and maintain for data integration. States are better off paying less to integrate the data in the first place and saving their money for the process of making use of the new information to drive changes in policy and practice.

Because the reality is, the status quo comes at a cost. Having a fragmented system operating on limited information hurts the families who need help the most, and the providers who serve them. Developing state-level infrastructure to provide better information can help the system operate more effectively, allowing state investments to have a greater impact.

Change is hard in state government. It’s easier to double down on existing data systems than it is to uproot whatever the state has already done and start over. But if a state’s infrastructure for integrating early childhood data is outdated, the state should stop throwing good money after bad.

Improving and expanding early childhood services can have a major long-term effect on child and family outcomes, and better information is a key support for that improvement and expansion. Modernizing the state’s approach to integrating data is not exactly the kind of issue that gets motivated protestors into the streets. But it is the kind of issue that is essential to achieving a state’s goals for its early childhood system and giving children and families the services they deserve.

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Birth Through Third Grade Learning