A few years ago, Dr. DJ Patil, who was recently named the first U.S.Chief Data Scientist, co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article introducing the data scientist as “the sexiest job of the 21st century.”
“If ‘sexy’ means having rare qualities that are much in demand,” Patil, a veteran of such hot tech companies as Salesforce, eBay, Skype, PayPal and LinkedIn, and his colleague Thomas Davenport wrote, “data scientists are already there.”
In Washington today, the same can be said about the Chief Data Officer (CDO).
Research conducted by the IBM Center for Applied Insights highlights the CDO’s rare combination of both technical and business skills to “mobilize their organizations around an enterprise data strategy, activate the use of data in new ways, and build more data driven cultures.”
And Patil’s appointment as U.S. Chief Data Scientist underscores the increasing demand for data leaders across government. In fact, Patil joins a growing number of CDOs in U.S. government agencies, such as:
Dan Morgan, Department of Transportation
Ian Kalin, Department of Commerce
Bobby Jones, Department of Agriculture (Acting)
Niall Brennan, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
Micheline Casey, Federal Reserve Board
The rise of Federal CDOs
You’ll notice from the agencies listed above that organizations that have data that is valuable to the public and have a mandate to share data publicly have been among the first to name CDOs.
In her announcement regarding Patil’s appointment, Federal CTO Megan Smith said that “utilizing data for innovation holds amazing potential for the future of our country.”
Indeed, that’s no understatement. A July 2014 Commerce Department report estimates that U.S. government data helps private firms generate revenues of at least $24 billion annually, at an average cost to the government of only $3.7 billion—a 6X return on investment.
President Obama accelerated the demand for CDOs last year by signing the Digital Transparency and Accountability Act of 2014, which directed the nation’s Treasury Department to develop standards for exchanging financial data among U.S. agencies and make it easier for the public to understand how agencies are spending tax payer dollars.
The role of Federal CDOs
Federal Reserve Board CDO Micheline Casey recently described the need for “an executive focused on data from the perspectives of business strategy, policy, process and rules,” and said that the CDO “meets that need, concentrating on the strategic business application of information assets across the enterprise.”
How does a CDO accomplish this? In-depth conversations with data leaders in both public and private sectors identified three essential capabilities of the CDO, and I’ve added observations specific to Federal agencies.
TO ENVISION: The CDO creates and directs a holistic data and analytics strategy.
In the Federal space, this means not only considering the data governance issues facing an agency internally, but also addressing how the agency will make its data available to the public.
David Bray, CIO of the Federal Communications Commission told the FCW that the best candidates for this role are those who are both detail-oriented and people-focused: “You have to know the details of your data, its level of quality, and its context—and you have to know what data the people in your organization, partner organizations, and in the public find valuable.”
The Data.gov initiative is a great example of agencies already tackling this challenge.
More than 83 agencies and sub-agencies have made roughly 124,000 data sets (and counting) available to citizens and enterprises. Data.gov cites dozens of examples of the innovations created through public access to data.
These include a financial services company that leverages National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation Service and NASA data to help farmers better plan their crops. Another example shows how a real estate company is using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Census Bureau, and American Community Survey to give consumers insight into a neighborhood’s home and rental values.
TO ACTIVATE: The Chief Data Officer does not just facilitate information-gathering, but also enables the organization to use data and analytics in order to create value and business impact.
From an agency perspective, Nick Sinai, former U.S. Deputy CTO at the White House summed it up this way: “A CDO needs to work across an agency, to ensure the organization is treating data as a strategic asset. A CDO should establish an agency-wide data governance policy and oversee its implementation, working closely with the Chief Privacy Officer and the Chief Information Security Officer.”
A great example of activating data to create value is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DoT) goal to have vehicles equipped with communications sensors that can capture and share information. The automotive industry’s adoption of these sensors would ultimately drive the creation of new data-driven safety applications that help reduce accidents and save lives. As part of its work, the DoT is exploring a wide range of issues—technical, legal, security and privacy.
TO TRANSFORM: The value of the CDO comes in shifting the organization’s culture and decision making to be more analytically driven.
The IBM Center for Applied Insight study found that while some C-suite leaders believe that they don’t need a designated data officer, because data “is already being handled” by others, many view the CDO as a catalyst for a transformative, data-driven culture.
In his interview with Federal News Radio, Dan Morgan, DoT CDO refers to this work as a catalyst in terms of engagement and enablement, saying: “There’s a lot of coaching and then really bringing people to understand how newer folks who are building interesting Web-based applications are applying our data, and what that means for the way we produce and release that data to the public.”
He also wants to use his role to “create a safe space for DoT employees to try new technologies” by aggregating the risk at his level so there “isn’t a fragmented approach to data analytics and the use of these tools.”
The ROI beyond the Beltway
The recent appointment of several CDOs suggest that “data leaders” are quickly becoming part of the Federal C-Suite to help gain value from data. Meritalk highlights Patil’s appointment as one of a number of “high-level Silicon Valley transplants who have been brought into government … to inject private-sector ingenuity into public-sector IT.”
However, private-sector companies may also gain new insight from public-sector agencies with strong data leaders. What innovations emerge from the open sharing of data? How do agencies address security and privacy concerns? Answers to these questions may be valuable both inside and beyond the Beltway.