At Trifacta, one of the tenets of our company culture is to always be learning, and we put that into practice with monthly “fireside chats,” where we invite leaders in the tech and data science community to share their experiences with our team. We’ve been lucky enough to host some illustrious guests, including Mike Olson of Cloudera, Jyoti Bansal of AppDynamics, Selina Tobaccowala of Gixo and formally SurveyMonkey, and recently, Dr. DJ Patil, the first former Chief Data Scientist under the Obama Administration. In our conversation with DJ, we discussed his experience working for the government, the ever-evolving state of data ethics, and how data preparation plays a key role in nationwide data initiatives. Read our recap below.
Dr. DJ Patil: The First Chief Data Scientist for the U.S. Government
Although DJ became the White House’s first Chief Data Scientist in 2015, the government itself has a long and storied history with data. Routine Census data collection is just one example, DJ points out, but it dates back its early beginnings when George Washington established the Army Corps of Engineers under cartography project. “Data has had this unbelievable lineage to the government and and doing everything from powering how we think about policy, but also day-to-day aspects of just how do you manage systems,” DJ says. Creating an executive position for data science in the White House was recognition of this past, and a strategic investment in the value that data can bring.
For DJ, one of the main difficulties in pioneering a path forward with governmental data was its increasing complexity and variety. “There’s a different type of data that needs to be brought together and that data is often messy or there’s data that we don’t necessarily have an answer about,” DJ says. The best approach to working with the latter, he explains, is making it readily available to the public and allowing for their assessment to help inform public policy. As for the former, it’s up to the White House to continue prioritizing technologists that can tackle increasingly thorny data to benefit the country at scale—and not just certain populations. “We realize that lots of great amazing tech is being built and lots of data is being used, but it’s not always being done in a responsible way and it’s not always being done to think about all Americans,” DJ said. “The mission of the United States Chief Data Scientist is to responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans.”
Data-Driven Solutions to Nationwide Problems
One such initiative that DJ described is the “police data initiative,” which came about in the wake of the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after a team of technologists, police chiefs, data scientists, and civic activists came together to address the excessive use of force and race relations among police departments. What they discovered is that police chiefs had no data accessible to them, beyond their own department, that would allow them to identify trends or dictate best practices. The police data initiative unearthed that data, and further allowed for even more questions to be asked about the criminal justice system at large.
Though the police data initiative was largely considered a success, what’s disheartening to see, DJ explained, is when federally available data is ignored or otherwise unsolicited to the general public. Upon resigning his position, DJ commented on Hurricane Harvey’s effect on Houston as an example. With climate change’s undeniably growing impact, he explained, it’s dangerous when city planners construct plans without access to flood data or additional climate change data. “It’s one of the areas that I greatly fear is that we have not put enough data out there for for local people to actually make good decisions, and then also in public policy schools we do not teach people to ask these questions,” DJ said. It’s our responsibility as a nation to examine where data can make an impact, and how we can ask data-driven questions with regard to all public policy.
Finding New Opportunity at a Former Organization
Since resigning from his position, DJ Patil has rejoined the Crisis text line board of executives and is excited to tackle problems that similarly exist at a nationwide scale, but which may not be news headlines. Issues like mental illness and suicide, or the inability to provide sufficient food or health care to one’s family—these are the issues that the Crisis text line caters to. “One of the greatest things that I realized in my job was that the problems that are the most unsexy problems are the problems that people don’t want to talk about,” DJ said. “We have the courage and conviction to figure out how to go to Mars; we need to have conviction and courage to figure out how to feed every child in this country.”
It’s difficult to recap all that we learned from our conversation with DJ, but suffice to say it was enlightening and inspiring. We’re proud to be a technology that he supports, and are excited to hear more from him in the future in our quest to always be learning.