In 2015, the Barack Obama government elected DJ Patil as the chief data scientist in his government. It was the first time that a role like this was carved in the US government. He worked in the position till 2017, before Donald Trump took office as the 45th President of the US. Between 2017 and 2021 (till now), the office of the chief data scientist has been lying vacant.
Given the growing role of AI, data science, and machine learning, which are now more deeply penetrated in routine human lives, should Joe Biden, the current US president, consider filling it?
Chief Data Scientist Role Responsibilities
The standard expectations from a CDS in the US government are to help and guide in shaping policies and practices to maintain the country’s position as the leader in technology and innovation; foster partnerships that assist in maximising the nation’s return on investment in data; and recruit and retain the best talent in data science to join the team. The CDS works closely with the Chief Information Officer and the US Digital Service, among others.
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The Obama-led government undertook several initiatives in the field of data science and AI. This included making more than 138,000 data sets available to the public for fostering a sense of innovation and entrepreneurship. Several steps were taken to secure the personal data of Americans and expand capacity for examining large and complex datasets.
Patil, who first coined the term ‘data scientist’, earlier spoke about his role, saying that he is responsible for leveraging data in a timely manner to enable transparency, security, and foster innovation. He added, “Given the importance this (Obama) administration has placed on data, along with the momentum that has been created, now is a unique time to establish a legacy of data supporting the public good.”
In an interview, Patil said that his role requires him to accomplish four main objectives:
- Providing maximum social return on federal data.
- Creating nationwide data policies that enable shared services and forward-leaning practices to advance the nation’s leadership
- Establishing best practices for data management and ensure the long-term sustainability of databases
- Recruiting and retaining the best minds in data science for public service
As the CDS, Patil undertook many tasks. One of the most important projects that he worked on was spearheading precision medicine — a form of care that uses DNA to establish a personalised approach to treatment. It is a long term research project that is still under construction. Other healthcare initiatives announced include Cancer Moonshot, handing patients access to their data, and establishing a cybersecurity and health ecosystem. He also encouraged the use of data in matters of policing and the criminal justice system.
Patil was also instrumental in establishing the Data Cabinet and associated leadership groups across national security. This step eventually led to the inclusion of data scientists as a career path in the civil services. He helped Silicon Valley and the Pentagon come together to establish the Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental) or DIUx.
“Literally, data can save lives,” Patil said in an interview.
Data & Biden’s Govt
Biden is not privy to the potential of data. For his own presidential campaign, his team invested in data analytics and data insights. Biden’s team had sought assistance from Eric Schmidt (former Google Chairman)-backed Civis Analytics. It is a data science software and consulting company that helped Biden connect with the younger voters and small donors.
Interestingly, Biden recently announced Members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Among these newly elected, a few members are experts in artificial intelligence and data science; for example, William Dally, who is the Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President of Research at NVIDIA and has invented hardware architectures that power several supercomputers and modern artificial intelligence tools; leading AI researcher Eric Horvitz; Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist and cosmologist, who is also serving as the Director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science at the University of California.
Credit: The White House
Further, as the world slowly emerges out of the COVID-19 pandemic, a fresh batch of challenges lie ahead. Data science and artificial intelligence have a crucial role to play. There would be a requirement for analytics tools and mechanisms to supervise back to work/tools, administer vaccines to the entire population, and research the disease to prevent future breakouts. Biden has also said that the focus needs to be collecting accurate data on every facet of the pandemic. Expanded and accessible data would help in dealing with the crisis in an efficient manner, Biden added.
Further, as soon as Biden took over the office, he passed an executive order to pursue a comprehensive approach to ensure equity among all, including historically marginalised and underrepresented communities. To that end, the order dedicated a section to establish a working group to identify inadequacies in federal data collection policies and programs and recommend strategies to address such deficiencies.
These instances prove that data could become an integral part of policymaking and governance under Biden’s administration. The only natural step is to re-activate the CDS’ office and appoint the next chief data scientist.