Outgoing intelligence community data chief previews forthcoming data strategy

The intelligence community is drafting a new data strategy for the first time since 2017, with a big focus on training a data savvy workforce.

The intelligence community is drafting a new data strategy for the first time since 2017, with a big focus on training a data savvy workforce well equipped to take advantage of an increasing deluge of information that intelligence agencies are both collecting and producing.

Intelligence agencies have made “great strides” since the first data strategy was published in 2017, according to Nancy Morgan, who just retired as chief data officer of the intelligence community. Her last day was April 29, and the office of the director of national intelligence has yet to select her replacement.

“We’ve made some significant improvements to what we’ve been doing with data lifecycle management since the first IC data strategy was published in 2017,” Morgan said in an April 28 interview on All About Data and Inside the IC. “We feel we’ve done a lot of work to enhance sharing and safeguarding, but there’s still more to do.”

Chief data officers across the 18 intelligence agencies are focused on using automation to do more data preparation, Morgan said. The goal is to give analysts more time to “do higher order tasks” rather than rudimentary jobs like data tagging.

“We’re collecting and producing more information than ever before, the IC is launching more collection capabilities than ever before at astounding volumes, certainly since I began my career 30-plus years ago,” Morgan said. “It’s just astounding how much information we’re gathering. So it creates a data volume challenge.”

ODNI is also updating the IC IT Enterprise, or “ICITE,” strategy, a major guiding document for how intelligence agencies will use computing in the years ahead. The work is being led by Adele Merritt, the chief information officer for the intelligence community.

The new IT strategy will be pivotal to “enhance the critical data management capabilities to achieve our goals,” Morgan said.

CDOs in the intelligence community are also looking to create more interoperability across intel agencies and the broader Defense Department. Morgan said leaders want to share successful approaches across organizations.

“How do we integrate and involve multidisciplinary approaches that solve the IC’s most challenging and emerging data issues?” she said. “We find new data challenges  every day in every domain area.”

But beyond technology, a major piece of the forthcoming data strategy is the workforce. Morgan said spy agencies aren’t just focused on bringing in highly sought-after data scientists, but also training the existing workforce to be more data savvy.

“How do we increase the data acumen and tradecraft, by not only attracting but developing, growing and resourcing the data savvy workforce?” she said. “So not just the talent we recruit, but the workforce we already have. How do we give people a chance to develop new skills and make them even more powerful and valuable to the community?”

Career pivots

IC data leaders are looking to create opportunities for intelligence professionals to start learning new skills related to digital technologies, data and cybersecurity, according to Morgan.

“It’s really very powerful when our domain experts learn some of the foundational skills for working with technology, working with automation, working with artificial intelligence, machine learning, being paired up with data scientists and data engineers,” she said.

The focus isn’t just on developing data professionals, but on building data aptitude across mission, business and policy areas, including acquisition, contracting, privacy and civil liberties, legal divisions and finance, according to Morgan.

“Frankly, it’s about supervisors, managers, leaders, senior executives at all levels of the organization,” she said. “Are we asking the right questions about data when it’s presented to us? Do we understand the data that’s driving our decision making and we say the words data driven decision making but how are we actually putting that into practice?”

Morgan noted the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Office of Personnel Management to establish new occupational series for not just “data science,” but “data management” as well.

“I was really proud of helping influence some of the wording on that, because while I absolutely want to have a strong data science cadre, you need the full data management realm,” she said. “You need data managers, data policy experts, in addition to those data scientists and those data engineers.”

ODNI is also preparing to conduct the pilot phase of a new public-private talent exchange. It will allow intelligence officers to work temporarily in the private sector, and vice versa. The pilot phase will allow for six-month details, according to Morgan.

The pilot phase will include specific focus areas, including professionals working in data, as well as a category for artificial intelligence and machine learning, according to Morgan.

“Launching the pilot is a bit complicated, working through some of the security issues working through some of the acquisition and legal issues,” she said. “But our goal is really to help intelligence officers and private sector colleagues better understand each other’s mission, landscape, inject diverse thinking and gain new insights and really, hopefully create a more two way flow of talent skills and ideas.”

She also said it could help inculcate a culture where there’s more back-and-forth between the government and private sector.

“I don’t know that people will have the same sort of trajectory of a career that’s more only in the government or only in the private sector,” Morgan said. “I hope we’ll see more two-way movement and more continuous movement over the time of someone’s career. And again, selfishly, for me, this helps us grow our digital data and cyber savvy workforce with real world experiences.”

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