Charles Aaron of the Federal Communications Commission aims to get the agency out of the infrastructure business and more focused on its core mission.   

Feb 23 2015
Data Analytics

Rise of Chief Data Officers Promises More Open Access to Government Data

The federal government aims to put data into the hands of the public and creative application developers — and it all centers around chief data officers who can help agencies rethink data management.

Charles Aaron has a three-year strategy for getting the Federal Communications Commission where it needs to be when it comes to data management.

As the agency’s chief data officer, Aaron is part of the growing trend of federal government agencies hiring more CDOs to orchestrate their data needs. Just a few years ago, CDOs were nearly nonexistent in government. Today, they can be found inside the Department of Transportation, the Federal Reserve Board, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Army.

“I was brought on to integrate the system so that data is managed consistently throughout the agency,” says Aaron, now working at the FCC on loan from the Department of Homeland Security. “We will also use analytics tools that will help explain what the data means.”

Many projects now vie for his attention: among them, outsourcing the agency’s storage and infrastructure management to an Infrastructure as a Service provider such as IBM, and modernizing its data management system with increased index and tagging.

For Aaron, the success of all of those projects hinge on changing how the agency collects data. In the past, when a company wanted to apply for a television or ham radio license, they would fill out forms with very defined blocks of information. In the future, Aaron says, the FCC will design forms that will automatically prepopulate an explanation of the information needed to complete the application.

“We have to get out of the data infrastructure business and focus more on data integration and management,” he says.

$221 billion

The high-end estimate of the revenue generated by private firms from federal government data

SOURCE: Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Fostering Innovation, Creating Jobs, Driving Better Decisions: The Value of Government Data,” July 2014

A Clear Trend

The FCC and other agencies in the federal government are responding to many of the same forces that the business community reacted to following the financial crisis of 2007–2008.

In the wake of the financial downturn, both agencies and companies needed better information on what was happening in their organizations so they could be forewarned of any other looming crises.

Regulations increased, and the Obama administration launched the Open Data Initiative, which mandated greater transparency at agencies and made data available to the public and software developers.

Coupled with the explosion of mobility and the sheer volume of devices IT departments and agencies now manage, the initiative made clear to the federal IT community that more efficient data management was in order.

Traveling Data

David Mathison, founder of the CDO Club, an organization that tracks the progress of CDOs and runs trade shows and conferences on data management, estimates that there were 250 CDOs working in business and government by the end of the 2014.

He expects that number will double in the next couple of years.

A chief data officer focuses on proper data governance as well as maintaining user privacy and security. That is not to be confused with a chief digital officer (also a CDO), who focuses more on building an organization’s digital business or ecommerce.

“What has to happen in both business and government is that organizations have to get data into the hands of developers so that they can be creative,” Mathison says. The FCC is way ahead of other agencies, having named CDOs at its 11 bureaus over the past decade, but Aaron says the agency still largely works off a series of data silos that lack analytics.

Other federal organizations are now following suit. Last summer, Dan Morgan became the Department of Transportation’s first CDO, having worked previously on open-data initiatives as a consultant for PhaseOne Consulting.

Morgan, who reports to CIO Richard McKinney, says the CIO’s office recognized that many of the agencies that are part of the DOT have been working on their own enterprise data and information management efforts. McKinney and many on the IT staff became concerned that maintaining such an approach would perpetuate some of the data silos that make it difficult to analyze and fully understand the department’s data.

The DOT also hired a CDO because, as transportation systems become more interconnected, the department will see a change in the types of data available to help make decisions about national transportation policy and investment.

Today, cars, trucks, buses and airplanes can send messages to one another and to infrastructure operators. State and local governments also deploy intelligent transportation assets, such as traffic cameras, roadside safety equipment and sensors.

A CDO can navigate that changing landscape while also ensuring that the right policies, practices and tools are in place to best manage and analyze all of the new data sources.

Morgan has developed an 18-month plan that has DOT focusing in the first year on building a strong foundation — getting its policies and practices in place and obtaining buy-in from department stakeholders for approaching data from an enterprise perspective.

I will also be engaged with the safety data initiative, which seeks to put all the federal government’s safety-related open data in a central spot on,” Morgan adds.

The DOT will take part in data jams and open-data events to encourage the private sector to put government data to work, along with creating a department-focused datapalooza.

All of this is helping the Obama administration carry through with the transparency the president promised during his 2008 campaign.

In many cases, the data was simply buried inside stovepipes, looking for a way to get out. It was his job to find how exactly to do that.

As more CDOs enter the mix, it’s likely a new age of government transparency is dawning.

Mary F. Calvert

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