Coordination of resources to improve outcomes for Victorian children
The Victorian Children and Adolescent Monitoring System (VCAMS) is a cross-government initiative that aims to monitor the well-being outcomes of 0 -18 year olds in Victoria. A change of requirements forced a move from traditional practices to adopt a coordinated approach to sharing information across agencies to enable more effective policy making. This clearly highlighted the requirement for better data management practices.
A comprehensive set of indicators was sourced from across Victorian state government departments. The need to identify metadata held by key staff emerged during the transformation from a manual process for collating data to an automated one. This change also highlighted the need to develop a common understanding of data provision requirements and to measure the quality of outputs.
A proof of concept project was undertaken by Statewide Outcomes for Children (SOC) in conjunction with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to investigate the use of an automated system for collecting and collating indicator data from the source departments.
The bigger picture shifts the focus
The introduction of the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 highlighted the inadequacies of traditional reporting practice for the progress of children and young people in Victoria. This forced a shift from merely reporting process-related outputs from individual departments to focussing on a whole of government and community approach to monitoring outcomes across a spectrum of related issues, including safety, health, development, learning and well-being. Early on in this process it was identified that major changes to current practice would be required.
Data resources shaped to fit a statewide system
A recommendation from a comprehensive review prompted the development of a state-wide system of collating data on the education, health and well-being of Victorian children. The Victorian Government committed resources and support to identifying appropriate outcome measures and designing coordinated systems to collect, analyse and distribute this data.
Significant funding was provided in the 2005-2006 state budget for research into the measurement of health and well-being outcomes for children across Victoria. This funding supports a new focus on strategic planning for children’s services.
Access by users considered early in process
Early on, it was decided to develop a website to ensure the general public could access the indicators easily. Initially, indicator data was collated and published in book form. This process was labour-intensive, so developing a website to be automate the process became a priority. During 2008 the ABS and SOC collaborated to develop a proof-of-concept automated system that compiled the indicator data.
A model for using cross-government data collections was developed to:
• understand how children are faring,
• to identify areas most in need of intervention,
• set policy and planning priorities at the local, state and national levels,
• track the results of investments, and
• monitor trends over time.
The VCAMS model began with a cross-government outcomes framework, with a legislative base for multiple state government departments providing data. The framework includes 35 outcome areas covering child, family, community, and services and supports, and has a suite of 150 indicators to measure these outcomes.
In early phases there was considerable descriptive metadata available to explain why particular indicators had been selected, but only basic metadata was available to support the collation. Much of the metadata was not explicitly recorded. This included valid value ranges, contact points within departments, quality elements such as reliability, privacy constraints, data format and relationships to known standards.
IT solution forces better data management
An IT solution was developed to transform a range of existing manual processes for collecting and cleansing data across a subset of the indicators. This process exposed to the SOC a range of statistical and data management issues they hadn’t had to contend with before.
The ABS assisted with this process, successfully achieving the desired outcome through a pilot program.
Metadata creates value though consistent practice
During the project, metadata was developed to describe each indicator. This allowed it to be easily found within a web portal set up in the pilot program. Metadata also had to be created about valid values and cleansing rules.
This process also exposed the need for data sharing agreements between participating departments. Such agreements would ensure that the data required, and the format that it is to be delivered in, is clearly documented.
Community benefits maximised through speedier process
The investment in creating a coordinated system of data has paid off on many levels. Considerable savings have been made in what was once a resource intensive and time-consuming process. It has also allowed a greater breadth and flexibility of product output. The coordinated approach to information has also allowed more targeted reporting to the Victorian government, which flows onto decision-making, enabling better outcomes for young people.
As a result of the project, SOC was considerably better placed to understand the role of metadata and what was required to support desired outcomes. The VCAMS project transformed a manual process that took months of effort to produce a limited product into an automated one that collated data and created outputs almost immediately It clearly demonstrates the benefits of accessible discovery metadata, and of transforming implicit metadata (what is unsaid) into explicit metadata (what is clearly expressed).
To ensure continuing success of automating VCAMS, emphasis will be given to developing data sharing agreements.
What lessons were learnt?
Capture metadata once / use standards
VCAMS enables the re-use of metadata across collection cycles, thereby minimising the effort required, although it is still unable to control the full derivation of the required metadata as it is drawn from a range of departments and systems.
The next step is to incorporate existing data standards and definitions into the data sharing agreements of all participating agencies.
The final ideal for VCAMS is that data providers could source metadata for indicators from a public store that holds accepted standards for the indicator data items. The stored metadata could then be re-used across the systems providing data to VCAMS.
Metadata needs to be fit for purpose
In the first phase of VCAMS, collection level metadata was gathered and stored as in XML format. Future iterations would also include data item level metadata and quality indicators. Phased implementation allows for the development and rationalisation of data item standards and associated metadata.
Whilst the primary benefit of quality metadata in the VCAMS case was to automate the processing of data in the VCAMS system, it also meant that data outputs are better defined and understood.
Want to find out more?
For more information about VCAMS, visit www.education.vic.gov.au
For more information about the NSS, visit www.nss.gov.au.