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Commerce CDO outlines need for data to keep pace with emerging technology

The Commerce Department serves as one of the country’s biggest data hubs, and drives decision-making across government and industry.

But the department, amid rapid changes in emerging technology, is looking to evolve its data mission and will spend much of 2024 drafting an enterprise data strategy.

Commerce Chief Data Officer Oliver Wise said the department expects to release the strategy in fall 2024, which will focus on five “cross-bureau” priority areas for data maturity.

“We have some of the most data-mature organizations in the world, and every American should be incredibly proud of the amazing work happening at places like [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], Census and beyond,” Wise said in a recent interview. “But when it comes to the connective tissue of those data siloes, we’re really quite weak, and it’s very hard for our practitioners working bureaus to work collaboratively toward some shared purpose.”

Among its goals, the data strategy will accelerate some of the work that’s already happening at Commerce’s component agencies. It’ll also look at ways to improve inter-agency data sharing and coordination.

“What we’re going to do in our data strategy is very deliberatively look not just at the boxes in the org chart, but at the white space in the org chart too,” Wise said.

Wise said the draft data strategy directs Commerce to strengthen American competitiveness in emerging technologies. That includes bolstering the domestic supply chain for semiconductors under the CHIPS and Science Act and accelerating National Institute of Standards and Technology’s work on emerging technologies.

The strategy will also address strategic competition with China and staying ahead of a global arms race around artificial intelligence.

“The domains of that competition are not just military and diplomatic, but principally economic and will come down to technological innovation, and whoever [out-]innovates the other will dominate in the 21st century and beyond,” Wise said. “You’d better believe it that our competitors are leveraging data.”

The upcoming data strategy will also have Commerce refocus its efforts on community development — using data to make informed decisions about investments that will benefit urban and rural populations across the U.S.

“From a database perspective, that means being able to have sufficient geospatial capacity, in order to see it all together in one place on a map,” Wise said.

Commerce will spend much of the upcoming year understanding how its massive data inventories can improve climate resilience. Wise said that will require going beyond weather data collected by NOAA.

“We also have unparallel demographic and economic data at Census, but we need to work to make those data more interoperable, so that we can not just make good climate projections, but understand what it means in terms of community resiliency,” he said.

The data strategy will also direct Commerce to use its data to accelerate the use of AI in and out of government.

President Joe Biden signed a sweeping executive order in November, calling on agencies to step up their use of AI tools.

“We’re not ready for AI until our data is. And then, in order to have safe, accountable, responsible AI, we need to have a very good handle on our data. The data has to be well documented and enriched with the proper metadata,” Wise said.

Commerce will also focus its data strategy on improved HR analytics, and using data to support long-term workforce planning decisions.

“We’re are people-based organization. If we’re going to be competitive in the future, we’ve got to be able to answer questions, like what are our human capital needs over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years? And we need to have a much more coordinated approach to understanding our existing talent and our needs over time, and what the likely supply of labor will be,” Wise said.

Commerce has always relied on data to meet its mission. A NOAA warehouse in Asheville, North Carolina holds century-old paper records of some of the earliest meteorological data ever recorded in the U.S.

But Commerce is taking steps to ensure its data keeps up with public demand and the adoption of generative AI tools and large-language models.

“We’re now on this hockey-stick curve of technology innovation, and we’re thinking long and hard at the Department of Commerce of how we use those technologies to further our data democratization goals,” Wise said.

As part of this effort, a new working group of Commerce AI and data management experts is focused on publishing the department’s data set in machine-readable formats. The working group is also making data sets “machine-understandable,” so that AI models and web crawlers can identify Commerce data sets as authoritative.

“We are publishing our data in ways so that users of these technologies can reliably use them to derive insights about the world around them from our data. That is a major priority of ours,” Wise said.

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