DJ Patil is not a turntable icon, spinning electronic dance music. He is the master of another medium – data. And last week he was named the nation’s first Chief Data Scientist.

In fact, Patil may have coined the term. He co-wrote a paper that appeared in the October 2012 Harvard Business Review, which referred to the data scientist as the sexiest job of the 21st Century.

“If ‘sexy’ means having rare qualities that are much in demand, data scientists are already there. They are difficult and expensive to hire and, given the very competitive market for their services, difficult to retain. There simply aren’t a lot of people with their combination of scientific background and computational and analytical skills,” Patil and Thomas Davenport wrote.

In the same paper, Patil also wrote that he and Jeff Hammerbacher coined the term in 2008.

What Will Patil Do?
Putting data to work will be Patil’s principle function. John Podesta, a counselor to the president, said in a conference call a few weeks ago that Patil will be “looking at the way big data science can improve services across the board, starting particularly in the health care world,” according to a report byNextGov’s Jack Moore.

Patil outlined his ambitious new goals in a memo, “Unleashing the Power of Data to Serve the American People,” which he released Friday.

In the memo, Patil said he sees his role as leading the Federal charge “to responsibly source, process, and leverage data in a timely fashion to enable transparency, provide security, and foster innovation for the benefit of the American public, in order to maximize the nation’s return on its investment in data.”

Patil says he wants to focus on: providing vision on how to provide maximum social return on Federal data; creating nationwide data policies that enable shared services and forward-leaning practices to advance our nation’s leadership in the data age; working with agencies to establish best practices for data management and ensure long-term sustainability of databases; and recruiting and retaining the best minds in data science for public service to address these data science objectives and act as conduits among the government, academia and industry.

Agencies know data holds secrets that can help them improve service or understand what consumers want and need – but typically lack the tools and expertise needed to turn those ideas into practical reality.

Patil summed up the potential value of Big Data in his Harvard Business Review piece this way: “If your organization stores multiple petabytes of data, if the information most critical to your business resides in forms other than rows and columns of numbers, or if answering your biggest question would involve a ‘mashup’ of several analytical efforts, you’ve got a big data opportunity.”

Federal agencies are “more data-driven than most companies are right now,” Patil said at the Strata + Hadoop big data conference in San Jose last Thursday. “And that’s a bold statement. But from everything [I’ve seen] in the small period of time that I’ve been there, it’s absolutely true.” Perhaps nowhere is that challenge – and the potential for payoff – greater than in the public healthcare sector. Megan Smith, the nation’s chief technology officer, wrote on the White House blog last week that Patil’s healthcare focus will include working on the administration’s Precision Medicine Initiative, “which focuses on utilizing advances in data and health care to provide clinicians with new tools, knowledge, and therapies to select which treatments will work best for which patients, while protecting patient privacy.”

Silicon Valley to DoD
Patil worked for a number of IT powerhouses, including Salesforce, EBay, Skype, PayPal and LinkedIn. He’s also done work for NOAA to improve weather forecasting and with the Defense Department, Smith said, “where he directed new efforts to bridge computational and social sciences in fields like social network analysis to help anticipate emerging threats to the United States.”

Patil joins Smith; VMware’sTony Scott, the new U.S. chief information officer; Mikey Dickerson, who leads the U.S. Digital Service; and Alexander Macgillivray, the nation’s deputy CTO; as high-level Silicon Valley transplants who have been brought into government by the Obama administration to inject private-sector ingenuity into public-sector IT.

The federal government sits on the world’s biggest data treasure trove, much of it still walled off from public or industrial action. But the Obama administration has made some 138,000 data sets available since taking office, with more to come. The Data DJ will have his work cut out for him.
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MeriTalk Staff