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Government Is “More Data-Driven Than Most Companies,” Says America’s First Chief Data Scientist

LinkedIn’s former chief data scientist DJ Patil aims to wrangle the government’s data in the service of “precision medicine.”

Government Is “More Data-Driven Than Most Companies,” Says America’s First Chief Data Scientist
[Photo: Jan Haas/dpa/Corbis]

Python and R wonks take note: The United States now has a chief data scientist. DJ Patil was recruited by President Obama personally and just appointed to the newly created position, where the ex-LinkedIn chief scientist will work in a supervisory role for a broad analytics effort across the federal government. His duties will include shaping policies and practices across agencies, building data science partnerships with the private sector, and helping agencies recruit talent. The White House says Patil will also work in a more hands-on role at the National Institutes of Health’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which is working on better ways to create genomics-based therapies for individual patients.

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“One thing that’s really interested me: how much our government has embraced data science,” Patil said in his first remarks in the role, during a brief presentation this morning at Strata+Hadoop World, a large big data conference in San Jose. He said his mission as chief data scientist would be to help the Obama administration in its push to make government data more open and machine-readable, and in the next step, too: building applications, particularly for health, on top of that data.

“How do we build an ecosystem of data products that add value? Let’s start bringing the data science and bioinformatics together, let’s start building those products that showcase the value proposition, not just opening the data.”

Patil said he was impressed by President Obama’s interest in data—”this is literally the most data-driven president we’ve ever had,” he said—and applauded the way that data science had become a part of a number of federal government agencies. “There are key leaders in all these places, or these places have open searches for data professionals.” For instance, he said the president uses a new set of analytics dashboards to monitor IT spending on the federal level.

“They’re more data-driven than most companies are right now,” Patil added. “That’s a bold statement, but from everything I’ve seen so far, that’s absolutely true.”

From Patil’s presentation at Strata+Hadoop World

In a surprise video introduction, President Obama described the “massive amounts of data” that the federal government has made public, which has helped, for instance, “accelerate treatments to diseases.”

“Think about the weather and map apps many we check on our phones, many of which are powered by open government data,” said Obama. He quoted one of Patil’s mantras—”data science is a team sport”—and called upon data scientists to join the government’s efforts.

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In a statement, U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith said that “President Obama has prioritized bringing top technical talent like DJ into the federal government to harness the power of technology and innovation to help government better serve the American people.”

Patil—whom Fast Company profiled in its Generation Flux series—is also coming on board at the U.S. government at a crucial time. Despite the increasing importance of analytics and data science for everything from health care to energy utilities to infrastructure to budgeting, analytics policies vary wildly from agency to agency. While some organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy have been enthusiastic adopters of large-scale data-crunching platforms, other agencies are struggling to integrate data science into their workflow for reasons ranging from organizational culture to extremely limited budgets. A Commerce Department report says data science efforts generally contribute between $24 billion to $221 billion annually to the private sector.

Patil’s responsibilities, according to one of his slides at Strata+Hadoop World

Patil pointed to companies and nonprofits that are “creating real products and adding real value by building on top of these data sets, and creating new data sets,” and called on data experts in the private sector to join in public efforts to make better use of data. A website for the U.S. Digital Service, a new initiative, collects the government’s open data sets, which now number over 138,000, and helps propel open-source projects that do everything from “helping veterans to building great transparency.”

“We need the help,” said Patil. “You don’t have to relocate D.C.; there’s all sorts of ways to drop in.”

Patil noted that privacy was another “big component” in the government’s data policy. “How do we think about the responsibility of data and the ethics of data? How do we ensure we’re protecting privacy for our customers and around students?”

This past year, Patil’s startup RelateIQ was sold to Salesforce for $390 million. Besides LinkedIn, his background includes work at Greylock Partners, Skype, PayPal, eBay, and the Department of Defense.