Nov 16 2015

U.S. Chief Data Scientist Explains How to Spot Useful Data

DJ Patil explains how data can change lives for the better.

We currently live in the age of big data; there’s simply no way to avoid its importance to everyday life. Although data’s upside should need no explanation at this point, perhaps the best person to explain its benefits is the nation’s very first chief data scientist. DJ Patil, who came up with the data scientist title, believes there’s a way to identify and pluck out truly useful information.

In a recent interview with Marketplace, Patil explained why data has been treated like an asset only in recent years. In Patil’s eyes, it harks back to Star Trek and the role that Mr. Spock played on the fictional Starship Enterprise.

“Spock is on the bridge, he's not in some way back office. So in the modern boardroom or in policy conversations, why isn't there a Spock in the room?” he said while on the public-radio program Marketplace. “Who helps us figure out context, interpretation, all these different ideas? That shift as people have started to put the Spock in the bridge, that said we could use data in this novel way, we could do more things with this and then it's like what more can we do with that?  Oh, we can build something.”

In his role, Patil is responsible for analyzing data and figuring out a way to use it so that it best serves all citizens. Patil points to the information being shared at as an example: “180,000 data sets that people are using in all sorts of manners,” he told Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal.

Placing someone in charge of that data revives Spider-Man’s “With great power comes great responsibility” quandary. According to Patil, the public shouldn’t be uneasy about the government’s access to certain data, because the government’s objective is to use it responsibly.

“In the case of health care for example, that is data that benefits everybody, like if everyone is able to have a safe way to provide their data, we're gonna be able to learn so much about the type of chronic conditions that are typically undiscovered,” he told Ryssdal. “There's all sorts of undiagnosed genetic diseases that we can't see at this point because we just don't have enough people contributing to the data.”

The hope is that the long-term positive impact of data will soothe concerns over access to it. In the meantime, the government will continue gathering it and scrutinizing it for the greater good.

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