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U.S. Chief Data Scientist Says Data Will Improve Life

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"The first suit I ever bought was for my AAAS policy fellowship,” Patil told the audience at the Forum on S&T Policy on May 1. | AAAS/ Kat Song

Large-scale deployment of data can do wonderful things. In the hands of the federal government, it could improve cancer therapies, encourage civic hackers to build exciting new insights and apps, or tell you when it’s (really) going to rain. It can also endow policymakers with the power to make more and better data-driven decisions.

As the first-ever U.S. Chief Data Scientist, DJ Patil is asking a lot of questions. He wants to know how the government can leverage data to improve life. Finding and implementing the answers requires close coordination among federal agencies and a lot of help from data scientists and technologists – many recruited, like Patil, from Silicon Valley.

Addressing the audience at the 2015 Forum on Science & Technology Policy on May 1, Patil weaved a path through the Administration’s grand plan for data. “One of the things I realized as a AAAS policy fellow at the State Department is the importance of having a mission statement,” he said. His mission is “to responsibly unleash the power of data for the economic benefit of the public,” he said and added that “we’re using data for the purpose of improving the world.”

We have to make sure that what data students are taught is not just about supporting consumer Internet companies. All of the innovation in the data science realm is not happening in universities – it’s happening in a handful of companies. Let’s just call a spade a spade. We have to figure out how to bring better balance to that.

DJ Patil

Patil joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in February. He described the last six years as ones that have seen an unprecedented amount of growth in the government’s need for data and for innovative ways to use it – from more accurate weather and economic forecasting to improved health care and national security. “Technology now allows data to come into the government in a new way. What are the different ways we can responsibly turn that data back to the people and convert it into wisdom?” He paused on the issue of the ethical use of data and added that the government is seeking to use data responsibly “because we’re entering an age where just because you can with data doesn’t mean you should.”

The first area of priority for the Administration is precision medicine, an area in which “we can take all the genomic information, the sensor data, and other health care information to get better outcomes in terms of your health and personalized care,” Patil said.

Open data is the second area of focus. Open data, for instance as embodied by data.gov, denotes the government’s efforts to open itself up by granting free and public access to large amounts of data in order to spur citizen participation, collaboration, and transparency in government. “We need to create an ecosystem where people can collaborate and build collectively.” 

“Third, how do we start getting more data into the government so that we’re able to make increasingly data-driven decisions?” Patil asked. “How do we use it to retain competitive advantage?”

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DJ Patil is working to recruit the best tech minds, many from Silicon Valley, to the federal government. (Tweet from May 22, 2015.)

Data for social justice and law enforcement is the fourth priority area. “We know data can be used for nefarious purposes,” said Patil. He then mentioned some of the areas in which data has a role including ensuring the safety of student data, finding ways to use data to assist police officers, and government transparency and accountability. 

Patil closed his address with a request. “There’s something I’d like you to think about: data ethics. How do we make sure that we’re putting policy into place that’s both empowering while simultaneously making sure that we do things in a responsible way?”