Does Chief Data Scientist Appointment Signal Boost for Analytics Spending?

Published: February 25, 2015

Big DataDigital GovernmentInnovation

Mid February 2015, the White House announced the appointment of its first Chief Data Scientist in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In addition to his post as Chief Data Scientist, Dr. Dhanurjay ‘DJ’ Patil will also serve as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy. This announcement comes as federal agencies continue to juggle resource limitations and competing priorities.

According to the Chief Technology Officer’s post on the White House blog, the Chief Data Scientist will work closely with the Federal Chief Information Officer and U.S. Digital Service, but the particular objectives of the role remain unclear. Patil is expected to help shape policies for technology and innovation, to develop partnerships to get more from the nation’s data investments, and to recruit talented data scientists into public service. He is also expected to support the Administration’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which targets advances at the crossroads of health and data. 

Over the last several years, government agencies have been working to harness the data they generate and steward. In fact, a number of agencies – the Department of Transportation, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce - have already carved out posts for chief data officers in their organizations or filled role. The appointments reflect renewed efforts across the government to tap into agency information through open data and analytics. 

Agency investments in big data aspire to spur technology innovation and deliver improvements to digital services. As part of the Digital Government Strategy, agencies are continuing to achieve and maintain high quality data sets, and to make data open and useable to the public. The administration has set a clear goal of open and machine-readable data the default for government information. Currently, there are over 138,000 datasets available on Data.gov for public use. Agency oversight organizations will be better equipped to combat waste and fraud. Meanwhile, decision-makers anticipate improved resource allocation. Technologists and research organizations are looking to advance scientific investigations by harnessing greater analytical capabilities. There are numerous health care applications from enhancing medical services to informing public health activities. Education stands to gain from data analytics through tailored lesson plans, online platforms, and increased efficiency for school operations. In short, cracking big data challenges stands to bring a wide array of benefits in areas like health, energy, education, public safety, finance, and development. 

Amid these promises, concerns have been raised around personal privacy and civil liberties. Current government efforts are targeting improvements to agency use and storage of data as well as strengthening cybersecurity. Additional efforts are likely to address accountability, oversight, and relevant privacy requirements for both public and private organizations. 

Federal agencies are working towards various data science goals like better decision-making support and more comprehensive situational awareness for areas like cybersecurity. Many of these efforts are well established and underway. Unless they are managing resources and bringing additional funding to the table, the primary impact of chief data officers is likely to be guidance. In the case of the new Chief Data Scientist, guidance focused on building the government’s capabilities may aim to temper reliance on industry for support.