The crowd at South by Southwest didn’t stand up and cheer last week when Commerce Department Secretary Penny Pritzker announced that Ian Kalin will become the agency’s chief data officer.

Maybe they should have.

Kalin will be the first ever CDO at Commerce, which produces a host of business data used by NIST, NOAA and the Census Bureau among other organizations.

Commerce will join only a handful of other agencies to install a CDO, and Kalin combines past government experience with a history of working specifically with data initiatives.

Kalin, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, power plant construction, tech start-ups, and White House innovation initiatives, has the right stuff to work in “America’s Data Agency,” as Pritzker has called the Commerce Department.

The White House recently brought DJ Patil on as the Federal CDO, and agencies with CDOs include the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and the Federal Reserve.

Gaining Prominence
For years, government agencies have been collecting data like dunes collect sand. But making use of that data, and opening it up so others can make use of it in a timely way, has only recently come into focus. In the Internet era, data is almost a new currency, providing insight and actionable intelligence on nearly everything, shortening decision cycles and increasing the speed of business.

The rise of the government CDO parallels a rise in industry.

Gartner Research Vice President Debra Logan said there are more than 100 CDOs serving in large organizations today, more than double the number in 2012. Gartner analyst Ted Friedman toldComputerWeekly he expects the number of CDOs to double again in the near future.

Fitting CDOs into the federal organization structure may still pose challenges. Some fear the rise of CDOs is illustrative of the plight of the CIO, who is hamstrung by security requirements and doesn’t control his agency’s data.

Forrester Research Principal Analyst Jennifer Belissent argues a competent CIO is sufficient. “If a CIO is truly empowered to guide the use of technology and not just its maintenance, the organization likely doesn’t need another chief,” said Belissent, to Government Technology.

One high-ranking GSA official believes CIOs should support the emergence of both CDOs and chief analytic officers (CAOs). While both fairly new, the official said the two should work beneath the CIO, but focus more on the business side of new technology as the CIO manages broader operations. The more true data scientists an agency has, the better.

But Gartner recommends that the CDO position be parallel to the CIO, not beneath.

Either way, this much is clear: Big data is leading to big changes within agencies, and Commerce is now among those leading the way.
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MeriTalk Staff