U.S. Chief Data Scientist: 'Time is Now' For Technologists to Jump into Public Service

Flickr user Joi Ito

The data already exists, DJ Patil said, to solve some important crises—if only we could piece together the pieces.

Data is one commonality all today’s emerging technologies and levels of society share.

Cloud computing, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, complex analytics and other new technologies all involve the storage, sorting, sharing, manipulating and analyzing data. People are the largest producers of it.

The Obama administration was acutely aware of this fact, enacting executive orders to open up more data and launching projects around big data like the Precision Medicine Initiative, Cancer Moonshot and Police Data Initiative.

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“Data is a force multiplier in every level of society,” said White House Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil, speaking Thursday before a crowd of 10,000 at Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent conference in Las Vegas.

Patil, whose position will be one of many President-elect Donald Trump may opt to fill come Jan. 20, spent most of his remarks outlining the significance data plays. The data already exists, Patil said, to solve some important crises—if only we could piece together the pieces.

“In cancer, the answer isn’t in a database; it’s in thousands of databases,” Patil said. “It’s fragmented. The answer is likely out there. We just don’t know how to put it together.”

Patil also called technologists to action, nudging them to serve the public by employing their technical excellence for the greater good. The Obama administration manifested that call to action at the federal level in tech wings full of Silicon Valley talent like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service.

Yet, Patil said, state and local governments could benefit even more from technological innovation. Numerous pathways exist for technologists to lend their insight, from simply sharing ideas to becoming more active in communities of practice or nonprofits like Code for America that address issues in that space.

Patil’s data cabinet effort—a group of two dozen agency data leads who meet regularly to exchange technical knowledge—is one such example.

“When do you jump in? The time is now,” Patil said. “Why? These problems can’t wait. You can help transform that—city level, nonprofits, the time is now to serve.”

That government improve how it collects, shares and opens up its data is imperative, Patil said, because the data deluge is only getting larger. The challenge is magnified given the societal implications data forces governments to face: There is now a data component to civil rights, police shootings and other societal issues.

The “data wave will continue to grow massively,” Patil told Nextgov following his remarks at re:Invent.

Grappling with the flood of data is likely to involve some mixture of cloud computing, on-premise solutions and “whatever [technology is] next,” Patil said. That may require a more proactive approach from the government, which tends to err on the side of a less risky reactive approach when it comes to tech.

“We know the benefits—when done responsibly—will provide a ridiculous and unbelievable opportunity for value,” Patil said. “The only way to provide a solution set that’ll work for these problems is radically different approaches.