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White House’s DJ Patil places laser focus on ‘unleashing the power of data’

The rise of the chief data officer across government comes from both an opportunity and a hole in the federal technology construct.

Chief information officers spend a majority of their time on infrastructure issues—both strategic and operational. Meanwhile, chief technology officers focus on the next IT innovation agencies can take advantage of to improve services.

DJ Patil, the first-ever White House chief data scientist, said CDOs are filling in the missing middle piece between CIOs and CTOs.

“As that Venn diagram of those [CIO and CTO] spheres overlap, we’ve also realized, ‘Hey, we have this incredible opportunity’ as we’ve seen the rise of data science and the opportunity to actually do things. In that conversation, we said, ‘What would happen if we had a role where somebody is singularly, ruthlessly focused on making that their mission?’ So, like all great organizations, we came up with a mission statement. Our mission statement is to responsibly unleash the power of data for the benefit of the American public.”

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In part 2 of Federal News Radio’s special report, Deconstructing the CDO, Federal News Radio sat down with Patil to find out how his role as White House chief data scientist is leading the emerging data management and data-driven decision-making efforts across government.

Patil came to the White House in February after spending his career with some of the biggest names in the tech industry—PayPal, eBay and Skype.

While others in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy have focused on the power of data over the past six-plus years, the fact that CTO Megan Smith decided to bring in someone like Patil and give him a specific data title is telling.

“I’m really excited about the team he is building and the way he’s been received in the federal government,” said Nick Sinai, a former White House Deputy CTO and now a Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “I really do think the fact that DJ helped coin the term ‘data science’ is an inspiration to help bring in data scientists and data engineers from across the country. I think having DJ as the Deputy CTO in OSTP, and the first data scientist, is symbolic in a very positive sense for how data-driven we aspire for the government to be.”

Executive leadership at HHS, CMS and Commerce

Sinai said the title of CDO is less important than the person within the agency owning the process to make federal data secure, machine readable, discoverable, open wherever possible, accountable, efficient, and for promoting its use across the economy.

He said this mission makes the CDO’s role distinct from the CIO or CTO because of how they have to look at and work with data.

“I see that as a role that will be solidified over the next few years as something that every agency feels is important to achieving mission, and being part of smarter and more digital and effective government,” Sinai said. “Some have CDOs in name and some have them where they aren’t called the CDO. Why one agency is doing it versus another? I think the agencies who are doing it see the opportunity to be data driven and see the opportunity to leverage data to help the American people better. Those tend to be the agencies that have a lot of data. So, if you think about Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Department of Health and Human Services, and the OpenFDA work, and Commerce, those are two departments that have a number of big data agencies inside of them. The executive leadership all the way up to the secretaries recognize the opportunity associated with taking their data and putting it to their best use in support of agency mission, whether that’s improving health care or improving the economy.”

That recognition of the power of data is why Patil has assumed this chief data scientist role in the White House.

He said one of his main goals is to listen and think about the governmentwide and agency-specific agenda around using data. Typically, Patil is seeking answers to where the “pain points” are to make data accessible and more valuable for agencies and citizens alike.

“We need to figure out how we are going to solve that as a collective, and bring everyone together to both understand all the nuances and what the proposed solution is,” Patil said. “Data science is a team sport. I’m not just the person telling people what to do, but I’m a member of the team. We are all working collectively to figure out what’s right. That also means holding ourselves accountable to one another and being intellectually honest about how we are doing the things we need to do with a singular focus of how do we responsibly unleash the power of data to improve all of America.”

To that end, Patil said his office is focusing on four priorities:

  • Health care and precision medicine
  • Open data efforts, including Data.gov, and opening up data sets through efforts such as the Blue Button and Green Button efforts for personal health records
  • Social justice efforts, such as the White House’s recent police data initiative announcement
  • Workforce training, recruitment and growing of data talent across the government

Patil said the workforce priority is exciting for several reasons, including the fact that so many agencies already have a lot of data talent.

“We just have to empower them. We have to give them voice. We have to give them opportunity. We have to give them a role,” he said. “That’s why you are seeing so many chief data scientists and chief data officers’ teams evolving so fast inside the organization. Some of those people have been in the CIO’s shop, the statistics teams, the research teams and the economists’ teams. Those are the people, when they come together, they have the opportunity to do remarkable things with data. I think that singularly focuses the difference between what we’ve seen traditionally as information and data science. It’s not just having the information, but turning that data back into the organization with the ability to do something new, or returning it out to the public for the return on investment  that we’ve made as a country. ”

No CDO Council quite yet

Patil said he hasn’t created a formal CDO Council, but his office regularly meets with agency CDOs and their teams to help solve problems or push forward the administration’s priorities.

By focusing on the workforce, the Obama administration wants to institutionalize the use of data and the people who manage it.

Patil said for this reason it’s important that his office doesn’t actually run any one program or initiative. He said whether it’s precision medicine or community policing, the agency leading that effort needs to be out in front, and not the White House, to develop the lasting skills and see the value of the data on its mission.

“We are focused on making sure we are taking the greatest advantage of the opportunities ahead through the use of different tactics or strategies,” he said.

Another key aspect of this institutionalization of data is the need to have a data strategy—something that is fundamental to all organizations, Patil said.

Is it the CDO or someone else?

“What people have to have, which is more important than anything, is not a title but a focus on being data driven,” he said. “What does data driven mean? It means that you instrument, you measure, you acquire the data, you process the data, you turn that data into action, insights, build data products, return it back, open it up and allow investment to continue to build on top of that investment. That is more important to me than any title.”


Read part 1 of Federal News Radio’s special report, Deconstructing the CDO. 

 

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