‘Data Science is a Team Sport': DJ Patil Spends First Day Pitching Silicon Valley on Joining Government

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In its quest to get more data scientists into government, the Obama administration is likely to face stiff competition for talent from the private sector.

Just a day after the White House officially named DJ Patil the government’s first-ever U.S. chief data scientist, the administration’s already putting him to work, sending the Silicon Valley alumni to a West Coast tech conference to recruit fellow data scientists to join government

"Data science is a team sport, and we can't do this without you,” Patil told attendees of the “Strata + Hadoop” big data conference in San Jose on Thursday. “We really need your help …You don't have to be a U.S. citizen. You don't have to relocate to D.C. There's all sorts of ways to jump in."

Patil directed would-be federal data scientists to apply on the website of the U.S. Digital Service, the digital fix-it squad working out of the White House.  

President Barack Obama -- who, according to an account in Wired personally recruited Patil -- introduced him to conference attendees via video message.

“Understanding and innovating with data has the potential to change the way we do almost anything for the better,” Obama said.

But in its quest to get more data scientists into government, the administration is likely to face stiff competition for talent from the private sector.

A 2012 Harvard Business Review article -- co-authored by Patil -- declared the role of data scientist, “the sexiest job of the 21st century,” sparking a “hiring frenzy of people with an understanding of data analysis,” as tech news site GigaOm put it.

But Patil said federal agencies aren’t necessarily playing catch-up with the private sector and that a “data-driven culture” already exists in government -- starting from the top.

“One of the things I can't stress enough, and that has been overwhelming to me personally to see, is that this is literally the most data-driven president we have ever had,” Patil added. “This is the president that's created the first set of dashboards at the federal level to monitor the progress on the IT spend. There's dashboard the president regularly looks at for this stuff.”

Still, it should be noted the IT Dashboard, which tracks the risk profile of 760 major IT investments across agencies, isn’t without its critics. The Government Accountability Office has dinged the site for serving up outdated content (the current iteration of the site provides a static snapshot of data as of August 2014) and for the reluctance of agency officials to accurately report the risks associated with their investments.

Patil also cited the growing number of agencies that have either hired chief data officers or announced searches to fill such a role, including the departments of Commerce, Transportation and Energy.

Federal agencies are “more data-driven than most companies are right now,” he said. “And that's a bold statement. But from everything [I've seen] in the small period of time that I've been there, it’s absolutely true."

Patil also cited the broad outlines of the Obama administration’s open data effort, including a May 2013 executive order calling on agencies to ensure the data they create is open and machine-readable and the 135,000 data sets publicly posted to Data.gov over the past five years.

The richness of government data has spawned the creation of numerous companies and even gave Patil his own start in the field, he said. While a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, he incorporated National Weather Service data into his research.

“For any of those that are out there who are working, trying to become data scientists and want to find a place where you can play with data -- I mean, this is the place to go,” Patil said, referring to the myriad data sets available on Data.gov.

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