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Rise of the Data Chiefs: Meet the Federal Officials Aiming to Usher in Government’s ‘Golden Age’ of Data

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Twenty years ago, Scott Shoup was a recent college grad working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helping earthquake-stricken Angelenos sign up for assistance after the devastating 1994 Northridge quake. Now, he’s helping lead that same agency’s efforts to leverage data across the department to be more “survivor-centric.”

Niall Brennan, a self-professed “data geek,” crunched numbers for years at Beltway think tanks and the Congressional Budget Office. Now, he’s massaging massive amounts of data at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to help agency leadership make decisions.  

Shoup and Brennan are two federal officials with one of the newest -- and still largely unfamiliar -- titles on their business cards: chief data officer.

Over the past few years, a growing number of federal agencies have appointed a chief data officer, or CDO, to help them manage their data as an asset -- releasing it to citizens and entrepreneurs alike and scrutinizing it internally to derive new insights and drive efficiencies.

Last month, the White House jumped on the CDO bandwagon, naming DJ Patil -- the Silicon Valley alumnus formerly of LinkedIn, who’s widely credited with popularizing the term “data scientist” -- as the first governmentwide data chief.

Nextgov sat down with experts, researchers and five recently appointed agency CDOs, including Shoup, Brennan and their counterparts at the departments of Commerce and Transportation and the U.S. Agency for International Development to discuss the mission of the agency CDO and whether there’s room on the federal organizational chart for yet another “chief.”

Read more from the "The Rise of the Chief Data Officer

See key points in the history of open data in the government via the “Timeline: Rise of the Chief Data Officer.”

Read Q&As with all five chief data officers profiled by Nextgov:

Read the Q&A: Niall Brennan, CMS

Read the Q&A: Dan Morgan, Transportation

Read the Q&A: Deputy CDO Lynn Overmann, Commerce

Read the Q&A: Brandon Pustejovsky, USAID

Read the Q&A: Scott Shoup, FEMA

Agencies Get Hip to ‘Vast Treasure Trove of Data’

In terms of setting policy governing access to federal data, the Obama administration has hardly been a slouch.

Since the administration created the online repository Data.gov in 2009, agencies have released more than 120,000 data sets through the site, according to the White House.

In 2012, the Obama administration unveiled a new digital government strategy, calling on agencies to make application programming interfaces the new default in sharing data with the public. And in 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order mandating federal agencies start collecting and publish information in open, machine-readable formats and for the first time start inventorying all of their data assets.

(See more key points in open data via the “Timeline: Rise of the Chief Data Officer.”)

All that has helped foment a growing awareness of the importance of data.

“I think agencies simply recognize what a vast treasure trove of data we have as a government,” said Brandon Pustejovsky, CDO for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which last year began requiring its aid missions around the world to start an ongoing extensive data-collection effort. "Data is an asset that we all hold dear as precious raw material that contributes toward the creation of innovative solutions in support of the most intractable problems of global development.”

CDO Role Still Largely TBD

But can agencies keep up with the acceleration predicted by market analysts as new data sources keep feeding the ever-bulkier big-data beast and tentative steps toward greater government transparency have led to heightened scrutiny on government spending and performance?

Enter the CDO, the “new hero of big data and analytics,” in the words of an IBM report on the emerging role.

A number of agencies have already carved out space on their leadership teams for a new data chief position. That trend has accelerated in recent months; no fewer than six newly minted CDOs have been appointed since July.

The current working definition devised by federal IT officials describes a hybrid role. The CDO is “part data strategist and adviser, part steward for improving data quality, part evangelist for data sharing, part technologist, and part developer of new data products,” according to a position description posted on CIO.gov.

The CDOs on board now are helping further define the role for government. But most are treading cautiously. For now, they’re mostly still just getting the lay of the land.  

"We didn't wake up one morning and say, 'We need an enterprise data and analytics office and a chief data officer,'” said Niall Brennan, who’s been serving as the Medicare office’s data chief since November. “It was a growing realization based on the very tangible advances that we were already making internally . . . You have to be seen as adding value, not process.”

(Read more from the Q&A with Niall Brennan)

Dan Morgan, who became the Transportation Department’s CDO last summer, said he’s focused his efforts so far on strategies to figure out how citizens can better engage with the department’s data and how to enable employees to better leverage data in-house.

"I would say to really spend some time walking around talking, not just to your IT people, but to your program people and to the folks who are really formulating policy,” Morgan offered as advice to fellow and future government CDOs, “because those are the people who are really asking different kinds of questions of their data and really trying to extract as much value as possible from it. So, being in front of the computer is so much more important than being behind the computer.”

(Read more from the Q&A with Dan Morgan)

Agencies Get to Know Their Data Users

With much fanfare last summer, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker proclaimed the Commerce Department -- the parent agency of the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S Patent and Trademark Office and the National Weather -- “America’s Data Agency” and kicked off a national search for a CDO. (As this article was being prepared for publication, Commerce announced it had selected Ian Kalin, a former presidential innovation fellow and Socrata's open data director, as its data chief.)

In the meantime, Commerce nabbed former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy official Lynn Overmann to serve as deputy CDO and to begin whipping into shape the agency’s data efforts.

Overmann told Nextgov she’s gone on a listening tour across all of Commerce’s bureau and departments, “to get people thinking much more actively about data and start to maximize the way that we're disseminating it,” she said. “Because if we can get that kind of internal engine running smoothly, it's going to enable us to do a tremendous amount more.”

In the short term, Overmann says the CDO’s office has also focused on hammering out a playbook for better engaging users outside the department.  

"Not just who our current power users are that we do a great of interfacing with, but how is it that we can conceive of who else should be using our data and how can we most effectively reach them,” she said.

(Read more from the Q&A with Lynn Overmann)

Meanwhile, other agencies are already moving ahead into the policy-setting arena.

At USAID, Pustejovsky, the CDO, helped finalize the agency’s internal open data policy that requires organizations doing development work -- including scores of contractors and grant-based organizations -- to systematically collect data generated by their work and submit it to agency headquarters. Teams in Pustejovsky’s office comb through the data, which is beamed in from some 80 missions around the globe, scrub it to remove any sensitive material and then publish it online.

The data spans the gamut from livestock demographics in Senegal to HIV prevention efforts in Zambia.

"While some data sets might seem arcane to one person to the next person, it's the desperately sought-after answer to a researcher's key question,” he told Nextgov. “And so we go under the assumption that there's a market for any of the data that we might out there -- that there is a customer somewhere and that this data's too valuable to be locked in the vaults of any agency. And furthermore, the taxpayer has paid for the data, and we owe it to them to make it available."

(Read more from the Q&A with Brandon Pustejovsky)

Too Many Chiefs?

There is quiet grumbling across the government, however, that the federal C-suite has already grown overcrowded with trendy new, fill-in-the-blank “chief” titles. Is the answer to the government’s data challenges really the elevation of a new role that could splinter off even more of the CIO’s authorities, the skeptics ask.

"The first issue organizations should ask themselves is if they're really happy with the way they're leveraging their data at the moment, then they should not do anything at all,” said Peter Aiken, the founder of the Data Blueprint consultancy, a long-time advocate of the beefed-up data role.

However, his 2013 tract, “The Case for the Chief Data Officer,” argues that most organizations do not fall into that camp -- and the solution is not to simply pile on yet another portfolio to the CIO's to-do list.

"CIOs are not paying enough attention to data,” Aiken said. “But it's also very appropriate to recognize that they are being asked to do a tremendous number of things."

Another reason why agency CIOs may not be cut out to lead their agency’s data agenda: the focus in the IT shop on program management. Yes, that’s a bad thing.

For years, IT was the Wild, Wild West with slipping deadlines, ballooning costs and little accountability (critics will, of course, point out that is still very often the case in the federal government). A program-management mentality sought to impose order on that chaos.

However, the best attributes of the project-management discipline are actually hindrances when it comes to data management.

“Data cannot be developed in the same mindset and with a project-driven mentality,” Aiken said. “The only possible outcome that produces is actually more small piles of data. And if that's your goal, we're doing a terrific job. But most people realize that more small piles of data is really a bad idea.”

In fact, Aiken said he believes the CDO role shouldn’t be situated within the CIO’s office at all but should, instead, report to the business side of an organization.

CDO: Not Necessarily Only About the Tech

CDOs themselves recognize the key to decoding their role isn’t necessarily a new piece of hardware or software. When asked to describe their work -- and the challenges associated with it -- most cited some variation of the decidedly low-tech themes of people, process and culture.

“Technology is a very important factor in the life of a chief data officer,” Brennan said. “But I think what distinguishes a CDO from a CIO is that the CDO needs look at technology as just one, albeit vital, component of a healthy and functioning data ecosystem within his or her organizations.”

Brennan’s office, which employs a team of data scientists, reports directly to the administrator of the agency. Brennan’s goal is to continue advancing the ability to “look at our programs in real-time or close to real-time and generate insight.”

But even as analytic capabilities get quicker, faster, smaller and evermore massive quantities of data easier to manipulate -- or munge, in the parlance of data geeks -- smart humans remain the “key secret sauce,” Brennan said.

Still, the most ambitious visions of what the government can accomplish are easily tempered. There's still often stultifying levels of cooperation among federal agencies when it comes to sharing data, thanks to “legal, bureaucratic and practical hurdles” and fears that some activities “could run afoul of privacy advocates worried about how the government tracks its citizens,” as a recent article on FiveThirtyEight put it.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports monthly jobless figures using imperfect survey techniques, in part because more direct data sources -- such as a government-maintained national database of new hires -- are off limits to BLS statisticians.

As it stands now, there are no formal channels in government for agency CDOs to share best practices. But the growing profile of CDOs have led to calls for a national Chief Data Officers Council -- based on similar confabs set up for CIOs and other specialist professions in government. 

A ‘Golden Age’ of Data

Still, despite those head-scratching hurdles to better data management that still plague the federal sphere, CDOs themselves have begun to notice a change.

"I went from walking the halls trying to get people to care about data 10 years ago, to being just overwhelmed with opportunities now,” said Shoup, FEMA’s data chief, who said he thinks government is finally poised to enter a “golden age” of data.

(Read more from the Q&A with Scott Shoup)

And as it turns out, experts say this isn’t yet one of those stories where the private sector has already lapped the feds who are left to hopelessly play catch-up.

Private industry was the first to heed the call for a CDO more than a decade ago, but widespread adoption there has been spotty, too -- outside a few success stories by heavy-hitting retailers and marketers.

But perhaps not for long.

"The first thing everybody's doing is hitting the recruiters,” said Aiken, the author of the CDO manifesto. “If you look at LinkedIn, you can see that the number of CDOs or CDO wannabes has miraculously increased over the last five years -- and correctly."

DJ Patil, the Obama administration’s new data guru, has spent his first month on the job rolling out the government’s welcome mat for data scientists. But there’s been fierce competition for talent in recent years. A 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review, co-authored by Patil, trumpeted the role of data scientist as the “sexiest job of the 21st century” and kicked off a hiring blitz for data geeks.

"So, government can either play catch-up or government can lead,” Aiken added.

(Image via everything possible/Shutterstock.com)

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