My First Year as Chief Data Officer


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Post by Ian Kalin

U.S. Department of Commerce Hosts First Commerce Data Advisory Committee Meeting in April, 2015
U.S. Department of Commerce Hosts First Commerce Data Advisory Committee Meeting in April, 2015

This week marks my first anniversary as the US Commerce Department’s first-ever Chief Data Officer. This past year was challenging.  But it was also an incredible opportunity to stand in the pilot-house of “America’s Data Agency” and chart a new course that strengthened the agency’s hugely important operations.  As I reflect on the past year, I want to share a personal reflection on the major roadblocks, lessons and accomplishments we’ve experienced.

It is difficult to create any kind of newly centralized data product, infrastructure, or policy function in an organization with 45,000 employees. I spent a great deal of time listening to my teammates when I first arrived and I observed many opportunities in four general dimensions: leadership, personnel, processes and technology.  With natural constraints on where to focus first, I chose to concentrate on the human element first.  We came up with the big idea that building a centralized team of data experts would create a critical foundation of talent within the department and empower the 12 Bureaus of the Department of Commerce to better achieve their missions.

We started with great talent within my leadership team, including bringing on Dr. Tyrone Grandison as the deputy Chief Data Officer and Jeff Chen as the department’s first Chief Data Scientist. From there, using special hiring authorities, we staffed up a data science and software development team, known as the Commerce Data Service. Normally, the Federal government takes years to budget and recruit such employees, but we found a way to work within the system and onboard extraordinary talent in just a few months. 

Under the leadership of Secretary Penny Pritzker and Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrews, the Commerce Data Service is initially focusing on five priority themes:

  1. Trade Data - Developing products that connect businesses with growth opportunities through data science on U.S. exports, that improve America's competitiveness abroad, and that improve data-driven decision-making of policymakers.
  2. Income Data - Integrating disparate data on income, and developing new engagement technology platforms that help different groups to better understand and take action on relevant issues.
  3. Patent Data Modernization - Helping to build products to improve the data architecture and systems for delivering patent data to the public.
  4. Interoperability Architecture - Enabling the integration of data from across Commerce's bureaus in order to increase the accessibility, dissemination and use of government data.
  5. Commerce Data Usability - Developing data tutorials showing how to ingest, clean, analyze and visualize Commerce data in order to increase the consumption of the Department's data for public benefit and innovation facilitation.

In just a few short months after the formal launch of the Commerce Data Service, we’ve made great progress in achieving our mission. Here’s a sampling of real impacts the Commerce Data Service has supported:

Making Government Data More Accessible - Open data is naturally messy and complex.  Even though some data sets have inherent value like rain forecasts and the GDP, other data sets are harder to initially assess.  If people cannot understand your product, they are never going to use it.  We developed a product to unleash the value by making the data easier to visualize.  The Commerce Data Usability Project offers a set of tutorials and guides to help people actually use Commerce data in much shorter periods of time. (more)

Developing New Public-Private Partnerships – Secretary Pritzker recognized that the Commerce Department could learn from the technology and data industry’s most influential leaders. So we helped set up the Commerce Data Advisory Council, which consists of 19 members, including the head of open source engineering at Google, a co-founder of LinkedIn, the Chief Information Officer at Intel, the Chief Information Strategist and a number of other brilliant individuals.  Through regular meetings the Council has delivered a democratic degree of transparency in to the Department’s data-oriented initiatives and has also greatly improved the quality of the Department’s work as a result of their timely advice.

Training government employees to improve services with modern tools - By investing in our own people, the Department of Commerce will be better able to accomplish its missions. We launched the Commerce Data Academy  - a series of classes for Commerce employees ranging from improving statistical work in Microsoft Excel to more complex coding in languages like Python and D3. The demand for these courses is strong – the initial set of courses had over 300 sign-ups for each class and enjoyed a participation rate of over 95%.

But the Commerce Data Service is just a very small part of a larger data ecosystem at Commerce.  Most of the Department’s data operations aren’t connected with this start-up and shouldn’t because of their robust and historic operations.  From a Department-wide perspective, it’s been an absolute joy to support game-changing experiments like the “Big Data Project” from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which seeks to unlock 20-times more weather data than has ever been shared in the history of the sector.  I’m honored to work alongside innovators at the Patent and Trademark Office, who have embarked on one of the most ambitious data modernization plans I’ve ever seen.  I’m also inspired by the leaders at the International Trade Administration, who are working to integrate big data into their core operations in order to spur greater American exports and grow U.S. jobs.

As exciting as the past year has been, it still feels like we’re just getting started.  These reflections are just a small sample of the past year’s journey.  But they also demonstrate that data can absolutely help people to grow their business, combat inequality, and protect the environment. We have more work to do and I’m excited for what the following year holds.

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Last updated: 2016-03-14 13:00

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