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Reflections on my first year as Chief Data Officer for the US Department of Commerce

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As Chief Data Officer of the Department of Commerce, I have the privilege of working with superlative colleagues leveraging government’s most underexploited asset—our data—to address some of the most critical challenges facing society. This past year has been humbling, challenging, but above all, inspiring. At my one-year anniversary in my role, I wanted to take this moment to reflect on the past year, take stock of the progress we’re making, and look forward to what’s ahead.

As CDO, my job is to accelerate the value curve of Commerce data within the Department, the whole of government, and with the public nationwide.

Commerce boasts some of the world’s most important data and most talented data scientists, researchers, and economists. But there’s so much more we can do to realize the Department’s full potential to apply data to power the American economy and create a smarter government that better fulfills its end of the social contract with the American people. My role is to lead our data governance work so that we can scale and align these assets to meet the Department’s mission and our obligations to the American people.

To this end, I spent the first six months of my tenure working with my colleagues across the department and in the Commerce Data Governance Board (CDGB) to create a FY23 Action Plan, which aligns our priorities to components of the Federal Data Strategy and Commerce’s FY22-26 Strategic Plan. This Action Plan embodies three “plays” to promote scale in the value derived from Commerce’s data:

  • Siloed → Coordinated: First, to scale the value derived from data, the Department must take a more coordinated approach to data management. One example of how we are putting this “play” into action is with our recent work on strategic acquisition of commercial data. Commercial data, which the Department licenses from the private sector, are becoming an increasingly important component of the Department’s data stack across our bureaus. In our statistical bureaus, such as the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, commercial data are critical for deriving timely, granular estimates of economic conditions, especially in an era of declining survey response rates, government’s traditional method of collecting data on the American economy. For those bureaus involved in supply chain policy, commercial data unlock powerful insights about global trade flows, worldwide production in strategic industries, and the governance of firms seeking export licenses.

Recognizing the need to think beyond a piece-meal approach to acquiring commercial data, the CDGB charted the Commercial Data Working Group. This group is looking across the Department to understand what Commercial data we have and what data we need, to the end of taking a more enterprise-wide approach of acquiring data that maximizes value to the taxpayer and utility to data users across the Department.

  • Bespoke → Standardized: Second, we need move from a data ecosystem that is bespoke to narrow use cases, and instead standardized for interoperability and reuse. In many ways, Commerce, through its statistical bureaus are already leaders in this efforts, especially around geospatial and economic data standards. But within our Department, there’s more we can do to better adhere to standards to facilitate linkage between data sets and to improve better machine readability.

One example of this approach is a pilot underway at the US Census Bureau to publish structured data enriched with standardized metadata that allows it to be more interpretable and discoverable by users of the internet, search engines, and, in the near future, generative AI. This pilot is showing promising early results and enormous potential for data democratization.

  • Manual → Automated: Despite being one of the most data-mature public organizations in the world, the Department of Commerce is still bogged down by labor-intensive manual data extraction and analysis. These manual processes too often hold the Department back from more proactive, strategic applications of data.

I am particularly excited by work just being kicked off to leverage modern cloud technology to automate data sharing between Commerce bureaus to drive evidence-based decision-making at Commerce. This initiative supports the focus of CDGB Metrics Working Group’s  , which included identifying common economic outcome metrics of major grant-funded programs across Commerce bureaus. (This is also a great example of the siloed → coordinated play.)

It has been a dynamic year for me, the Department, and the country. Going forward, it’s important to not only look internally at our own data management practices, but also outward, so that our Department’s public data assets are strategically positioned within a rapidly changing technological and geopolitical landscape.

The Department’s current Data Strategy expires at the end of the next fiscal year. As we look ahead to the next five years, it’s important that our Department, the largest collector and producer of public data in the United States and beyond, broaden our horizons on how to leverage the value of data to address the Department’s most strategic questions. These include:

  • How can we maximize the upside potential of AI to democratize insights from public data while managing the downside risks?
  • How can we build an integrated data ecosystem that provides proactive intelligence on near-term supply shocks and the US’s long-term strategic position on critical emerging technologies?
  • How can we apply data to enable equity at every stage of the program lifecycle?
  • How can we integrate climate and social science data to unlock insights for climate change adaptation and mitigation?
  • How do we align economic interests with our private sector partners to scale value from public and private data while ensuring privacy and security?

These are big questions that will take the best minds—both inside and outside of government –to address. Here’s three ways you can get involved:

  • Lend your voice to our data strategy. Over the course of the next 18 months, we’ll hold roundtables on components of our data strategy. I want to hear from you.
  • Reach out to us. Please write us at [email protected].
  • Work with us. If you want to apply your data talents to better your country at scale, there’s no more exciting place to develop your career than the Department of Commerce. We’re hiring.