A new set of priorities for the State Department means good data will be in high demand

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Just prior to the change in administrations, the State Department appointed a new chief data officer. Presuming the Biden State Department wants to use data to inform its decisions, the CDO position should be in high demand. New Chief Data Officer Matthew Graviss joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more discussion.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Graviss, good to have you on.

Matthew Graviss: Hey, thanks for being with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: State Department is in the midst of modernizing across a lot of fronts in the IT area. There’s going to be some policy changes, probably, because that’s what happens when administrationa and parties change. So there’s a lot of activity going on at State. How do you envision data supporting all of what’s going on?

Matthew Graviss: Well, data is going to be really important. I think we’re seeing that across the landscape, both in industry and across the federal government. It’s becoming more and more an important asset. I think you saw that with Congress passing the Evidence Act a couple of years ago, which requires each agency to establish the CDO position, and how CDO[s] will implement and carry out those responsibilities can vary from organization to organization. In my case, at the State Department, I’m kind of focusing on four fundamental things, the first isn’t going to surprise you – that’s really about culture, and how do we shape the use of data and democratize the use of data across the entire department. That’s so that we have our leaders saying, before they make big decisions, what does the data say, right? And it also means that our employees across the board can say I know where the data are, and I know how to access them. And I have the tools to use them. We’re also focusing on data management, how do we get the data good. We need to create high quality data and make sure we have the structure and processes in place to do that. And then another area that we focus on is the data technology, right? And that’s working with our partners in the Information Resources Management Bureau, to really make sure that we have that technology foundation, to maximize the use of data across the department. All three of those things are really important – the culture side, the data management side, and the technology piece, all bringing to bear an opportunity to leverage analytics. You can’t really do one without the other. And I think what’s cool about the State Department is that within the Center for Analytics, which I lead, as they designed the Center for Analytics out, all three of those are under one roof, along with an analytics team to go provide integrated services. And so that was really exciting and intriguing to me as I as I joined the team.

Tom Temin: So the analytics is the fourth fundamental, then?

Matthew Graviss: Absolutely. The other three are truly enablers for the analytics piece.

Tom Temin: And I would think the first one – the culture, the use of data getting that kind of democratization is I think you put it across the department – that must be the toughest one, getting people to understand, one, they can use data, and two, there’s data available, but even more important, how they can use it. I have a question: So now what do I do with data that can help me answer that question? How do you get that kind of sensitivity out there to a far flung and you know, a little bit of a stodgy department?

Matthew Graviss: It starts with making sure that the Center for Analytics is a model for good data behavior. We’re the official enterprise data and analytics capability. So it starts with us. I think we’ve been off to a fast start making a big difference across the department. I think we’re doing a couple of big things right now. One has to do with training and creating the opportunity for people to become more skilled in the data and analytics fields. We partnered with our Foreign Service Institute within the State Department to train, I think we’re up to over 2,000 employees so far. In the last year or so we’ve built seven new courses. So that’s one facet of culture is is taking the existing workforce and elevating their data game. Another area is bringing in people with data talent, too. We’re working with other agencies across the federal government on a one-of-a-kind data scientists hiring initiative. And that recently closed and just to give you a sense of it, Tom, we had the government advertised this data scientist job announcement, and we had over 500 applicants in two days. We had to close it early. And so there’s there there truly is a demand for data science in the government. And there’s also I think you’re seeing that a lot of people want to join the government and do data analytics, because they have that background. And they’re passionate about the mission. And so we just got to create those opportunities for people to join.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Matthew Graviss, the chief data officer at the State Department. And you mentioned the Foreign Service and partnering with their institute. Is it fair to say from that, then that the data and the analytics that you’re looking to institute can apply directly to the diplomatic mission, and not just to the back office types of functions?

Matthew Graviss: Absolutely. In fact, as we look at projects and decide what to invest our own resources on within the Center for Analytics, we really focused on impact and complexity and on the impact side that’s looking at mission value. So you’re right that there’s certainly a lot of work to be done from a data and analytics space on the management side, you know, department operations. But on the mission side too, you’re seeing a lot of that. We saw that when the pandemic came is that the Center for Analytics, the team that I lead, jumped in with both feet from a data perspective to support the repatriation of over 100,000 American citizens abroad. That’s very, very mission oriented, right, and then supporting the decisions about how we monitor the health and safety of our workforce at every post across the world. There’s a heavy data foundation to making all of those key decisions.

Tom Temin: And often in the area of diplomacy, just like in the area of intelligence, there’s a lot of human information gathering that goes on and evaluations. How do you quantify that in a data sense? And how do you mix it with hard, machine-generated data, such that you can produce an analytical product that takes it all into account and is useful for that mission?

Matthew Graviss: It’s a good question. I don’t think the focus is as much on how do you quantify qualitative data. But I think what we want to do is integrate qualitative and quantitative data together to produce a more holistic picture. There’s also, as you might expect, a lot of qualitative data, right, we have a massive amount of data at the department, some of which we generate, some of which we procure, because it’s hard to generate. You know, we procure from third parties, or some of which we use that, you know, data that’s publicly available. And I think the trick is, how do we integrate all of that information in a way that an employee doesn’t have to sift through thousands and thousands of lines of text? So it’s really about leveraging technology to accentuate the things that they need to focus on.

Tom Temin: And do you also have partnerships with some of the allied agencies, say, in the intelligence community, for example, that may also have data sets, and the State Department may have data sets to complement what they’re doing? And within all the legal structures, and so forth, is there a way to collaborate there?

Matthew Graviss: A hundred percent, there is – data sharing is really, really important within the federal government. There’s a Chief Data officers Council within the federal government that I represent State on, and that has the CDOs from HHS, Department of Transportation and Department of Defense, and you name it. And as part of that Council, we have working groups that are focused on a variety of topics. One certainly is data sharing. Another is the COVID-19 working group, which I lead. That’s really about bringing department’s approaches to responding to the pandemic, maintaining safe workplaces, finding out what the ground truth is on the ground. That has to do with data and data sharing. And so ensuring that we all have the right data to make those kinds of decisions with a pandemic, as an example, you know, is one of those where man, it was really important to have data that was shareable, and it’s still going on, you know, as vaccines are coming out, we’re working across the CDO Council to ensure that each of the departments has access to the latest and greatest information about vaccine data.

Tom Temin: So even the CDC and other parts of NIH could be part of your orbit of data ecosystem?

Matthew Graviss: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: One more question on detail here, and that is, with all of the data sets and the burgeoning number of data sets, both generated by State and also ones that you use that are generated by other agencies, how is everybody in this whole CDO community getting to the point where you know what’s available and all of the data is discoverable by everybody?

Matthew Graviss: Another good question, Tom. I think that I would tackle it in a couple of different levels. The first is more broadly at the federal government level: We do have the Chief Data Officers Council, we do have a federal data strategy that talks about the importance of data access and data sharing – each agency is required to produce data for public consumption through Data.gov. And that’s so that we can make sure we maximize the use of our data and people aren’t regenerating data or complaining about lacking access. And so I think that’s what the federal government, that’s really important is to make sure that we have that kind of one place to go to, to share data with the public. Within the State Department, we’re doing something similar but at a smaller scale for our employees. And that’s in this spring, we’ll be coming out with something called Data.State, which is really a one-stop shop for everybody internally at the department to go access data sets that may have been produced by another bureau within the department, or that may have been cleaned, you know, brought into the department from an external source and cleaned and organized so that we’re not doing redundant work. A lot of analysts who will tell you they spend 90% of their time prepping and cleaning data and 10% of their time analyzing data, which is backwards in an ideal world, right? So providing that Data.State capability internal at the department so that people can access high quality data is is one of the foundations of being a CDO at State.

Tom Temin: All right, so you’re giving everyone a clear view down on Foggy Bottom?

Matthew Graviss: That’s, that’s the goal. You got it.

Tom Temin: Dr. Matthew Graviss is the chief data officer at the State Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Matthew Graviss: Great to be with you, Tom. Take care. Thank you so much.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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