Commerce's Chief Data Officer on Leading 'America's Data Agency'

CDO for the Commerce Department, Ian Kalin.

CDO for the Commerce Department, Ian Kalin. Flickr user Kevin Krejci

Data guru Ian Kalin says he won't measure success in a “stereotypical bureaucratic fashion.”

As the recently appointed inaugural chief data officer for the Commerce Department, Ian Kalin says he doesn’t yet know exactly how he will gauge success.

But he knows one thing for sure: He won’t measure it in a “stereotypical bureaucratic fashion.”

Kalin brings both a business background, as the former director of open data for the startup Socrata, and government experience, as an Energy Department presidential innovation fellow. Nextgov talked with him to find out his plans for leading the so-called America’s data agency.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: How did you get the job?

IK: I actually have been guided that I can’t tell the intricate details of all of it. But I will say it was kind of random. From my friendly perspective, in that I'd heard about the news for some time and never really considered it personally until the CEO of a fantastic nonprofit organization, called Caravan Studios, an entrepreneur by the name of Marnie Webb, [suggested I apply].

She shared that she is recruiting a chief data officer, and basically Marnie said, 'Hey Ian, you should give it a try . . . ‘ And roughly 15 interviews and five months later, here I am.

It was a very public recruiting process. Just the announcement for the position made more press than I think most of the job descriptions normally get.

NG: Let's talk about what you will be focusing on over the next six to 12 months.

IK: There's already a lot of foundation that's been laid by the leadership and also my brilliant coworker and deputy Lynn Overmann, who has been in this office for a few months before I showed up. There's clear direction from the secretary.

And there of course is fantastic history . . . So with that type of foundation, it's kind of hard to say we're starting anything new. But it still feels like a startup. There are basic theories, which we are going to experiment with in an agile fashion. There’s going to be the creation of some type of new product or service for somebody because there are some very clear needs that are being expressed by the bureaus -- with the 12 bureaus under the Commerce Department -- in terms of  how to better accomplish their goal.

NG: You mentioned Lynn Overmann. Who else is on your team? Whom else will you be working with?

IK: My direct supervisor, so to speak, is Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrews . .  It's really just the two of us, in the literal sense.

But the real answer is that there is a fantastic, and right now, relatively informal community of practice for data . . .  There's this really funny informal network of folks finding each other. That’s part of this open data thing. This is not necessarily something new. It's, 'Can I find the information I need to do my job?’ If I can't . . . Is there anyone working on the same stuff I'm working on?'

NG: What’s the toughest part about evangelizing open data in government? What are some of the common misconceptions you encountered?

IK: The average person doesn't care about data. No one wakes up in the morning, other than me and some of my colleagues, and say, 'Wow, what data can I find today?'

'How do I send my kid to a safe school?' 'Why does health care cost whatever it does?' 'What am I going to do for my wife's anniversary next month?' These are the questions that people ask. And we know in the business world that data helps with that, but the truth is there's a disconnect I think with a lot of the ways these data programs are structured and the way people think of it in a normal sense.

I would say the biggest problems I've seen right now if I was to try to be a little more critical -- it's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's making my job hard -- Commerce is really federated. Our objectives spread literally from outer space to the deepest depths of the ocean . . .  And so our scope makes Commerce's ambition bold and essential. But it also means, if you’re doing basic planning, you can’t just expect that a simple tool is going to fit in any situation.

NG: What are your concrete success metrics? How do you measure success?

IK: I will measure success. Exactly how, I do not know yet. I have a few theories. I have a hunch, and I intend to be very open and transparent with my metrics in ways that may feel like a revolution for government, but hopefully not that different than any basic business practice.

Because of my background, I do not intend to measure this in a stereotypical bureaucratic fashion. My background is in business, I'm an engineer, and so I intend to bring those skill sets into government. And I've been asked to do that.

A lot of the folks at Commerce get the business culture. I've heard more people say the word ‘customer’ in the Commerce Department than any other bureau or federal agency I've ever walked in. They get it here. And so I hope to build on that cultural reception to bring modern business practices into the definition of success for a government program.

NG: What are your plans for creating a data culture, especially when it comes to training and awareness?

IK: I believe, in general, the data culture is already present inside the Commerce Department. I can prove that from the way people talk. The questions people are asking . . . Frankly, from the technological perspective, I've heard so many people who have never coded in their lives say more about APIs than anywhere else I've ever been. It's in the language, and I think the language is a reflection of our beliefs and our values. And it's here. It's happening.

NG: What would you say are the coolest data sets you've seen?

IK: It's probably going to have to be one experiment from [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. They have a public-private partnership in process right now . . . The most attractive part of it is the way that they're engaged in the private sector to help figure out what new stuff can be done with it.

I've heard a lot of luminaries in the data space who talk about how some of the most interesting information is the data that is only valuable when it's in motion versus at rest. NOAA counts for that. The meteorological and weather and oceanic information in this one public-private partnership, that is real-time moving . . .  And so what's most interesting for me is the potential. There's so much more that can be done and it is intrinsically valuable because of the real-time nature and the comprehensive nature high-quality nature of that content.

NG: Do you have any plans about building out your own data platform?

IK: Probably not. I would go the other way. My plans are to not build my own data platform, but rather leverage the great positive externalities that already exist.

So, for example, Data.gov. Some things are great about it. Some things, I think, are in the early experimentation stage. But to not use a program like that -- I mean it's free, why not?

Take advantage of the great stuff that’s already there. I feel a little bit like, if I was a new shipping company and somebody said, ‘OK, build your own roads.' 'Absolutely, I'm going to build all my own roads, everywhere I go.' ‘Eh, come on, they're free, the roads are already there.’

I have a theory that there'll be probably some stuff that we in this office end up building as a value-add product or service to either go directly to the American people or to the bureaus. Exactly what that looks like, I'm not sure.

NG: What are some ways that Data.gov can be improved and how are you going to help improve it?

IK: Part of my obligation is to make sure that the right content from Commerce is discoverable within the platform. By my last count, on some of the user analytic metrics and some of the download metrics, about a quarter of the files accessed through Data.gov are just from census and NOAA.

Two of the 12 bureaus are driving a quarter of last month's traffic on Data.gov. So we're already pretty present. I believe that there's more that can be done to drive more content, which can drive more usage of the Data.gov.

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