The term “recession” is enough to send chills through entire sectors of the economy and individuals alike. What best determines the toll of a recession is the ability of government and fiscal policymakers to react. A 2019 report from the Brooking Institute said “Recessions exact a major toll on individuals, families, firms, and budgets throughout the United States. A key aspect of proper macroeconomic policymaking is to minimize losses by responding quickly and effectively to downturns” and while the exact timing of a recession is hard to predict, “a crucial part of preparing for the next recession is making sure fiscal policy institutions are ready to provide support when needed to minimize the damage the next recession could do.” The key term in this passage is making sure fiscal policy institutions are ready to provide support when needed.
When a recession hits, one of the critical programs that creates an important economic safety net for individuals and families is Unemployment Insurance (UI). In the United States, “each state administers its own system, known as the regular UI program. Regular UI provides up to 26 weeks of benefits in most states. A permanent, joint state-federal program called Extended Benefits (EB) automatically extends the number of weeks of benefits available when a state’s unemployment rate crosses a statutory threshold.” In addition, during national recessions, Congress has historically passed legislation providing emergency benefits that further extend the number of weeks an individual can collect.
State of Florida case study
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Florida’s unemployment agency found itself facing an overwhelming challenge – the inability to scale with the sheer volume of new applicants. In a matter of days, a task force of state technology and data leaders worked to supplement their existing system with critical automation to handle the extreme influx of applications. Using a combination of Google Forms for data intake, analytics automation through Alteryx, and RPA through UiPath, the agency was able to restore access to a critical array of services for those seeking unemployment relief.
Two million applications and counting
The pandemic caused a sharp influx of unemployment applications in Florida (from 2,000 a month to 2,000,000), and their unemployment system was unable to scale in response to the requests for support. That led to a system that was inaccessible to those desperately seeking assistance, and the information that was collected could not be analyzed for eligibility, adjudication decisions could not be processed in a timely manner, and manual processes could not ensure adequate protection from instances of fraud. This led to delays in the distribution of unemployment relief, creating additional economic pressure on individuals and families, as well as pressure on state leaders to swiftly correct these concerns.
Agility and stability through analytics automation
By implementing a Google Forms-based process, the team was able to fix the problem associated with the input of application information. Once the data was collected, the Alteryx Analytics Automation Platform was utilized to process and analyze this data and create an integrated dataset with other sources to automate the process of identification (fuzzy matching), the determination of eligibility, and the management of funding distribution. Additional workflows were automated, including the use of Alteryx to feed RPA processes (UiPath), to handle the adjudication of claims.
The core system was still limited to 150,000 concurrent sessions, meaning that on average, 400,000 users needed to have their input (data collection) handled through Google-based processes. Through an integrated process that also included RPA, analytics automation was applied through 72 decision tree algorithms to handle backdated claims and provide unemployment relief automatically and retroactively to the date of filing instead of when the application was eventually processed.
Building for the future
With a combination of technologies and the application of analytics automation through Alteryx, Florida’s unemployment agency was able to recover from the increase in applications, restore a critical element of the state’s social safety net, and ensure that people received the unemployment support they were entitled to faster and more efficiently. Additionally, the state is better equipped to handle future challenges and is benefiting from a higher level of automation that is making operations more responsive and efficient.
The access to data and the ability to automate the creation of insights is critical to how government and fiscal agencies evaluate key economic indicators. An important and key economic indicator is the progress of housing construction.
Most Americans are familiar with the US Census Bureau given its role in surveying every person for the “Decennial Census of Population and Housing.” People may not know that the Census Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is the nation’s leading provider of quality data about the economy.
Mandated by law, Census collects, analyzes, and reports actionable data about people, places, and the health of the economy to Congress; the White House Office of Management and Budget; federal, state, and local government agencies; news organizations; businesses; and the public. For example, Census data, research findings, and key indicators are used to:
- Assess the health of the U.S. economy
- Allocate funding for new roads and schools
- Define voting districts
- Provide services for the elderly
- Locate job training centers
- Qualify people for social security
- Assess construction spending and activityAudit disaster recovery spending
Data as a strategic, high-value asset
Census data is one of our most valuable national assets. It must be accurate, timely, protected, and used wisely to effectively allocate over $675 billion in federal funding to states, local communities, and businesses.
For the past several decades, Census has relied heavily on burdensome manual processes and outdated tools to collect, process, analyze, and report data on the population, housing, businesses, workforce, public finance, resources used, etc. The sheer volume, velocity, and veracity of Census’ big data is hard to manage with legacy systems. Manual surveying and data processing are labor-intensive, tedious, and costly.
The US Census Bureau of Economic Indicators Division, Construction Programs, wanted to design, build, and deploy modernized and automated approaches for data collection, analysis, and dissemination that reduce operational costs while improving the accuracy and quality of Census economic indicators. Specifically, Census wanted an advanced analytics and process automation solution to compile and release U.S. economic indicator data worldwide that would meet specific requirements and achieve tangible goals:
- Eliminate redundant data entry
- Streamline the indicator release process
- Create a consistent look and feel for the indicators’ website
- Prevent early release of indicators
- Maintain security of indicator information
- Re-use existing systems rather than create new ones
- Use enterprise systems for their primary purposes
- Use a loosely coupled architecture
- Use existing security infrastructure
- Minimize changes to established business processes
- Refactor code rather than rewrite it
- Improve the quality of Census data products
- Prioritize security over performance
A unified approach to analytics
The U.S. Construction Indicator use case required an end-to-end solution with a robust Analytics Automation platform at its core. Alteryx eliminates data analysis barriers by unifying multiple tools into one platform that provides end-to-end, self-service analytics across big data management prep, analytics and data science, and process automation to accelerate insights and actions.
The US Census Bureau built an advanced analytics and visualization solution that enables the following:
- Modernizes construction industry indicators (housing starts, residential and non-residential construction spending, and others)
- Identifies alternative sources of data to reduce reliance on surveys
- Leverages advanced analytics and automates processes to optimize performance
- Provides advanced analytics and data visualization to provide Census users and external stakeholders with timely, relevant insights for optimal decision-making
- Uses AI to analyze satellite image data showing construction activity over time
The solution collects, filters, formats, and aggregates unstructured data from numerous Census and third-party sources. The data is ingested into the Alteryx Analytics Automation Platform which, in turn, enables the creation and scheduling of workflows that can collect satellite imagery and automate analysis using geospatial and AI/ML capabilities to validate, compile, and create more accurate and timely construction indicator insight.
Analytics Automation: Accelerating the quality of insights
With analytics automation, agencies like the U.S. Census can create, acquire, leverage new data sources, and provide higher quality service offerings and products to end-users. By reducing the need for manual field data collection, aggregation, and other preprocessing efforts, the analytics automation capability enabled by Alteryx is accelerating the quality and accuracy of insights on construction activity and is improving organizational flexibility and operational efficiency by allowing the Census resources to focus on high-value tasks.
Using data at the US Federal Reserve to stay ahead of inflation
A recent economic research publication from the Federal Reserve Bank indicated that to meet its number one priority of controlling inflation, while not crippling growth or stalling the labor market. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco commented that “bringing inflation down is the Federal Reserve’s number one priority right now. And we have the tools and the will to do it.”
In setting fiscal policy to address inflation, unemployment, or even the prospect of a recession agencies like the Federal Reserve must ingest, analyze, and model large volumes of data related to consumer confidence, GDP, employment rates, and other key economic indicators. In the words of one Fed Reserve leader “navigating a broad range of possible outcomes, policymaking now is also about managing risks. If supply continues to fall short and inflation remains high, we will need to do more. If conditions improve and supply bounces back, we can do less.”
Deciding what to do has always been the challenge faced by policymakers at the Federal Reserve since its founding in 1913. But what has changed is that the Federal Reserve is “a far more transparent institution now. We regularly share our views about the economy, our goals, and our expected policy path. This tells markets and the public more generally what we are thinking and how we are likely to react as the economy changes.” This increased transparency is enabled by an agile ability to respond to evolving data more nimbly and influence the behavior of financial markets and the economy more quickly. As one Federal Reserve publication explains, determining how to interpret all this data is the hard part, “Federal Reserve economists use data to forecast potential outcomes of various economic scenarios. All the while, the economists look for key information that will contribute to better monetary policy.”
Analytics maturity is key
From ensuring that critical economic systems like Unemployment Insurance are available for people in need to deploying analytics automation to enhance the creation of key economic indicators, to accelerating the transparency of analysis to improve the development of economic policy analytics, automation through Alteryx is helping these organizations and many like them build their analytic maturity.
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