State Department establishes enterprise-level data, analytics hub

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In a first, the State Department in January established what it describes as an enterprise-level data and analytics hub. The Center for Analytics aims to help diplomats do their jobs more effectively using data analytics. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the State Department’s acting chief data officer, Janice Degarmo.

Interview transcript:

Janice Degarmo: So the Center for Analytics, or the CFA, is the The Department of State’s enterprise data and analytics hub and its lead by the department’s first ever chief data officer. At our core, we work to solve the department’s most pressing business and foreign policy challenges through data analytics.

Tom Temin: Well, that’s an interesting point. Let’s talk about foreign policy challenges. Just give me a sense of how data analytics can help there cause that always struck me as a highly human type of psychological activity in some ways.

Janice Degarmo: Sure. Our slogan here at the State Department is the science of analytics meets the art of diplomacy. So how we look at it as data analytics is really complimentary to the incredibly deep expertise that our foreign service and civil service staff around the world bring to the Department of State. While they bring this rich, qualitative expertise on foreign policy issues, we in the Center for Analytics compliment it through real time, sometimes very hard to attain data that can complete a picture. So the data enables us to swiftly understand, to react and to predict ever changing world dynamics. We’re working with offices to create data forward strategies for addressing issues in China or Iran or around topical issues such as 5G. So, for the China issue, we have provided a China activities platform, data analytics dashboard, that actually now is available to the entire department, but it allows users to evaluate Chinese activities across the geography and topic areas using a wide array of different data sources. So while this started as a State Department project, it’s actually become one of the most powerful tools in government. It’s being used with the intelligence community and other agencies to provide a common baseline about what is and what isn’t Chinese malign influence. Using the State Department’s business of knowing what’s on the ground all over the world and then overlaying other open source and other data to be able to visualize that. This data is helping policy makers prioritize their engagement and make decisions around resources with regards to China.

Tom Temin: You mentioned data sources for the purposes of the analytics center there, is it distinguished from old fashioned intelligence, which might be a document, or someone’s observations written up. You’re talking about data sources in the sense that something that could be handled by a computer.

Janice Degarmo: That’s right. Well, the beauty of data analytics is It can be both. For some of that we’re pulling in everything from economic, political and security data. Indices that we can draw from some open source data. We’re pulling in internal State Department data that can only be attained on the ground. And we are pulling in intelligence data. So the power of data analytics is putting this all together in a comprehensive and digestible manner that makes it usable.

Tom Temin: How do you choose the data sets and who makes the choices? And what do you have to actually ingest all that information into the center?

Janice Degarmo: When a policy challenge such as this one comes to us, we work hand in hand with our policy experts, and so we do a whole visioning and project intake session that really takes a look at the bigger picture. But the beauty of what the Center for Analytics does is we’re here to provide enterprise view. So it’s not just about that one. That one policy desk officer’s view. We then say OK, let’s work with the intelligence community. Let’s work with economic indicators, for example, we’re working with the agency to bring in influence indicators that are attained from universities and other think tanks that have have defensible economic and data sources that we can infuse into our sources. So we  work with various experts throughout the building, throughout the community and throughout the interagency to ensure that we’re bringing in the most defensible data to help solve this problem. Data integrity is at the heart of what the Center for Analytics, it’s one of our values. And so we were always very mindful on purposeful to make sure that we’re bringing in the right data to solve the problems.

Tom Temin: Is the center a physical place? Is there an office where you can see a frosted door that says this is the State Department Center for Analytics?

Janice Degarmo: In fact, yes, it is. And the the Center for Analytics is actually a directorate within the State Department and is staffed and it has a physical location in main State.

Tom Temin: Where does it fit in the matrix of this of the State Department? That is to say, it doesn’t report, say, through the technology staff. Or does it?

Janice Degarmo: That’s right. The chief date officer who runs the Center for Analytics is actually on what we say the business side of the State Department. So we report directly to the undersecretary for management, which you could sort of compared to the chief operating officer for the State Department. The CIO as our equivalent also reports to the undersecretary for management.

Tom Temin: Sounds like you take quite a Catholic approach, small c, to the data sources that you bring into the center. What type of work does that take on interagency basis? Because a lot of the agency, a lot of the data might be in DoD or in the IC or Homeland Security.

Janice Degarmo: Right. So I think that is one of the goals of a chief date officer is really to unlock the power of data to use data as a strategic asset. In order to do so, it requires collaboration. It requires the rest of the interagency to sort of rally around problem sets. And how we’ve approached at the State Department is exactly that. Using a particular problem set that is a whole of mission problem, right? Certainly the State Department isn’t the only agency that’s working on issues around China. But if you can rally around a particular problem set and say hey, you know I think we can all agree here that we need to bring in the best smartest data sets to attack this problem set. Let’s do this together in a secure environment. We’ve had a really great success in doing so and rallying around solving a policy and business problem.

Tom Temin: Has the virus issue concerning China caused immobilization in the last couple of weeks for the center?

Janice Degarmo: The center has certainly been using our our data and analytics to look at issues around the virus, and has been able to provide some interesting insights.

Tom Temin: What types of people, as the chief data officer, do you look for to staff a place like this?

Janice Degarmo: I think that’s a great question. The chief data officer employees a wide array of disciplines. At the heart of our our data analytics is our data scientists. So we hire many data scientists, but we also work with our CIO to employee data engineers. To employ data analysts. We have other management analysts on our team to help promote the Center for Analytics. The Center for Analytics is not only about actually producing products, we’re working to infuse a culture where data and analytics is woven into the fabric of of the State Department’s DNA. We’re working to make sure that data is and included in every day decision making from the working level all the way up to the Secretary. So we have analysts. We have communication experts, We have technical experts and we have data scientist.

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