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Scott Elliott

Indiana data system fusing education, jobs needs state funding to continue

Indiana will get its first look this summer at a new $3.9 million data system that aims to help the public and state agencies better plan and make decisions about education and jobs.

The “Indiana Network of Knowledge” — called INK — plans to merge reams of data from different state agencies to give Hoosiers a better sense of the connections between schools and the workforce. Once it’s up and running, it might be possible, for example, to look up stats on how many 2010 college grads found jobs in the state, where those jobs were and what they paid.

“It’s going to be able to show long term patterns, and in traditional databases you can only see a snapshot in time,” said Jeffrey Hudnall, executive director of INK. “It’s important for people to see those patterns because people are making decisions (about schools and jobs) every day.”

But INK is funded by a federal grant that runs out in two months, so the ambitious project would need funding from the Indiana General Assembly to continue — about $1 million to $1.5 million per year.

“We’re doing everything we can to make (the funding) happen,” Hudnall said. “We’re meeting in May to go over legislative funding plans and lay out exactly what we are going to be asking for from the legislature.”

INK is a centralized data system that merges records from the Indiana Department of Education, Department of Workforce Development, Indiana Family and Social Services Administration and Commission for Higher Education so that educators, parents, students and community members can quickly look up information such as what kinds of jobs certain college majors go on to pursue.

Launched in 2014, INK has so far focused on hiring staff, building a data platform and surveying stakeholders about what kind of data they want. The next phase of the system’s development will focus on helping state agencies share information amongst themselves.

For example, when the Commission for Higher Education prepares its annual College Readiness Report — which breaks down information about Indiana college students including remediation rates, student debt and dual enrollment — it won’t have to go to multiple places within the Indiana Department of Education to get the data it needs. It would be able to easily request information using INK.

The eventual goal of INK is to make information available to researchers, policy wonks or anyone interested in education and employment in the state.

Gov. Mike Pence has emphasized connecting education and workforce development since he took office. He found an enthusiastic partner in Steve Braun, a former Indiana lawmaker who in 2014 wrote the bill that created INK.

Now Indiana’s Commissioner of Workforce Development, Braun is also planning to use INK to build on his own plans for how the state can connect data on workforce and education.

While INK is concerned mainly on tracking “supply-side” information about students and workers, including where people go to college, what jobs they end up with and what kinds of salaries they earn, Braun is focusing on the “demand-side,” where the state would examine what skills employers are looking for then look at how high school and college courses might be adapted to better prepare students for available jobs. The projects share key themes, Braun said, but have different end-goals.

“We … have wage record data, and we know who people are employed with, but we don’t know occupations, so we have to look for federal data,” Braun said. “We really need to have a much more significant employer perspective as we continue to develop our skills and competencies that we want to train against.”

Braun has an even wider vision for how data and education can work together. It involves not just mapping out what jobs and industries will be available in Indiana over the next decade, but also finding a way to hold schools and colleges accountable for job placement, which isn’t currently part of Indiana’s school rating system.

“If we are going to invest in education, there needs to be an economic or employable outcome as a result of that,” Braun said. “I don’t know anyone that sent their kids to college and didn’t expect that to result in some form of employment.”

But before INK can truly take off and become available to the public, Hudnall said his office needs to find out exactly what people want from a statewide data system so they can build the right software and get the technological pieces into place.

“We need to identify in what format the public or users of the data will want it in,” Hudnall said. “I don’t want to say I’m going to create an iPhone app for this if that’s not what people want.”

Eventually, Hudnall hopes for an interactive data dashboard that allows anyone to sign on and play around with information, either looking county by county, or even, through partnerships with other states, comparing Indiana with the rest of the country.

“This concept of a statewide data system and an organization to manage it is really starting to come forward,” Braun said. “I’m hoping as we go forward over the next couple years that we can really solidify it.”