GAO Hires First Data Scientist

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The position will lead the watchdog’s new Innovation Lab, soliciting new ideas and using data to help GAO better inform agencies and Congress.

The Government Accountability Office has been beefing up its science and technology capabilities of late, including hiring the agency’s first data scientist.

Taka Ariga, the first person to officially hold the title of data scientist at GAO, joined in October with a charge to innovate the way the agency uses data to accomplish its oversight mission. As part of that job description, Ariga was also named director of the agency’s new Innovation Lab, under the (also new) Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics group.

“Data analytics is the tradecraft of distilling hidden insights and enabling people to rapidly act on those insights,” Ariga told GAO’s WatchBlog on his first day on the job. “In the user-centric environment of the Innovation Lab, by applying data science at scale and exploring emerging technologies such as machine learning and digital ledger, we will help the audit community address grand challenges.”

While Ariga is the agency’s first official data scientist, GAO has been doing data science for some time, his boss, Tim Persons, told Nextgov.

“GAO’s been a data analysis institution for decades—we have very good data analysts and statisticians,” said Persons, who serves as GAO’s chief scientist and co-managing director of the STAA office.

But through the Innovation Lab, Ariga and the team will build on that base and work to apply new data science methods to ongoing work throughout GAO, Persons said.

“We’re using a DARPA-like methodology in terms of creating ideas and evaluating the various ideas on merit because we know there will be way more ideas than the lab can experiment on or explore,” he said.

Persons pointed to upcoming data-heavy audits, such as a governmentwide look at improper payments and a review of the entire U.S. Treasury Fund. The Innovation Lab team will act in a support capacity for those efforts, testing out ideas to lighten the workload and speed the process while increasing accuracy.

“We’re taking a sandbox approach where Taka’s not going to lead the audit. We have very capable directors leading our audits day-to-day,” Persons said. “What this space will do—the sandbox idea—is … trying to identify those key challenge problems. Figure out where we might have data, might be able to apply the tools and might be able to, perhaps, do something 2x, 3x, 10x better.”

“The benchmark is to be at least as good as what we do now in our analysis, if not better, but in less time and with less resources,” he added. “It’s leveraging that human talent, leveraging the tools, leveraging the data.”

Prior to joining GAO, Ariga worked for several government consultancies, including Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Booz Allen Hamilton, according to his bio.