White House to data scientists: We need you

Data is the key to transforming the nation, U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil said

It's been nearly two years since President Obama created the U.S. chief data scientist role, and the man currently in the job had an urgent message Thursday for attendees at Strata+Hadoop World: We need you.

"We are at the first step in making data work for every American," said DJ Patil in a keynote speech at the show. "It's only going to make a difference when people like you step up and show that it's not just feasible but scalable."

As chief data scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Patil's mission is to "responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans," he said, with an emphasis on the word "responsibly" and the focus on inclusion.

Challenges he's focused on during his tenure so far have included the opioid epidemic, highway safety, precision medicine, empowering underserved segments of the population, and education.

"We firmly believe that every student has to have the opportunity to understand computers and to learn how to code," Patil said. "It's one of the basic tenets of living in our new economy."

Patil also stressed the need for caution when working with big data, including ethical issues such as algorithmic transparency. A technology is neither radical nor revolutionary unless it benefits everyone, Patil said, citing as an example the need to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system.

Lynn Overmann, senior advisor to the U.S. chief technology officer for criminal justice, joined Patil on stage to describe current efforts to use data for that purpose. Siloed data, manual entry, privacy, integration, legacy systems and a lack of skills were all among the factors Overmann listed as obstacles in that effort.

"You have already solved these problems -- probably 10 years ago," she told audience members. "The opportunity is to use your talent to operationalize solutions to one of the biggest challenges facing our nation. Come help us -- we can solve these problems together."

Patil summed up the White House's message to data scientists with four key points.

First, "the edge cases matter," he said. "They're so easy to dismiss, but every one of them is a person or a group of people. Think carefully about who those cases are and the faces behind them -- you determine whether they have a solution or get nothing."

Second, "every data science training program must include ethics and security," Patil said. "We have entered a period where we have to take ownership for this."

Third, "we need you," he said, "whether you take time out of your career to work on this, or change careers."

Finally, "always focus on the individual," Patil said. "If you do, you'll always be right, and we can really transform this country in an unbelievably awesome way."

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