Over the past year, Indiana’s governor, Republican Mike Pence, has spoken frequently about a persistent public health issue: a higher-than-average infant mortality rate.
The state logs 7.7 infant deaths per 1,000 births, compared with the national rate of 7 deaths per 1,000 births. Several factors may contribute to this — about 17 percent of women living in Indiana smoke while pregnant, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Some women lack the education to provide proper nutrition for their babies.
Pence’s staff suspected that the solution to Indiana’s infant mortality problem lay hidden in the state’s records, stored in disparate data sets throughout various government agencies. Analyzing these data sets — pairing causes of death from the Department of Health with socioeconomic data from the Family and Social Services Administration, for instance — could help the state determine which preventative programs to fund, they surmised.
In July, the Indiana state government signed a contract with European software company SAP to use its data management system HANA, which stands for High-Performance Analytic Appliance, to crunch data about infant mortality. This is the first major public-health big data application in Indiana, according to state officials, and if successful, the state plans to use the approach to solve other problems, such as recidivism. Indiana is investing about $9.1 million in the overall big data project.
The state aims to reduce the rate to 7.4 deaths per 1,000 births by January, 7.3 by 2015, and 6.89 in 2016, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Indiana’s pilot comes at a time when federal, state and local governments are gradually showing interest in big data. In May, the Obama administration published a review of big data applications in the public and private sectors, and last year the president signed an executive order requiring the government to make its data available to the public.
“Hoosiers deserve an open and accountable government that moves at the speed of business,” Pence said in a statement.
The state selected SAP — whose main customers are large commercial businesses — out of several other software vendors, according to Indiana’s chief financial officer and management and budget director Chris Atkins.
About a month into the project, the state government is still establishing links between the mortality rate of infants and other factors such as the parents’ level of education. Atkins declined to share the pilot’s findings until after they have been subjected to more tests.
“Maybe it’s education, [but] maybe it’s something else we need to look into,” Atkins said, adding that once the state identifies factors tied strongly to mortality, it plans to invest more heavily in programs addressing those factors.
If a low maternal education level is found to be a strong predictor of infant mortality in Indiana, the state may invest more heavily in education programs or in outreach for expectant mothers. Other factors, such as environmental pollutants or crime, could also be linked to mortality.
“The government gives us the ability to shift resources — whether they be personnel, or dollars — into programs or areas that demonstrate better results, and away from programs that don’t demonstrate results,” Atkins said.
Atkins declined to share how much the state was paying SAP. He noted that the majority of fees were paid upfront, with a small annual maintenance fee. The state also has had to hire a handful of ad hoc technology consultants to set up the effort.
“The state of Indiana didn’t have a lot of data scientists on the payroll before we started this project, but by and large we’ve been able to do it within existing [staff],” he said.
In the past couple of years, states have been issuing hundreds of big data-related solicitations for technology each day, said Chris Dixon, an analyst for Deltek, a Herndon, Va., company that provides market research to government contractors.
“Public health and community information have really been the driver of the public facing data analytics” programs, he said.
Especially during the Obama administration’s “open data” push, state and local governments have focused on making more information publicly available so that outside developers and entrepreneurs can crunch it, sometimes creating apps and software for citizens, Dixon said.
But when faced with specific problems — such the infant mortality rate — governments can no longer wait for the public to solve them, Dixon said. He added that in the past year or so, he has noticed more state and local administrations attempting to process their own data.