Q&A

Up next at the 'Data Department'

Shutterstock image: beacon of data.

Lynn Overmann has been at the Commerce Department for two months, and already her goal is clear -- "to turbocharge our open data initiatives."

As the department’s first deputy chief data officer, much of those two months has been spent meeting with officials from the multitude of bureaus and agencies that comprise the 45,000-employee department. Those employees sit on a treasure trove of data.

The department is still looking for a top data officer. But Overmann, a self-described technology “convert” who came over from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she was senior advisor to the CTO, has gotten the ball rolling.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been at Commerce for two months. Are there some definite directions you’re planning on going with data?

Short term, one of the things we’re going to be pushing on is taking a step back and thinking about an active user engagement strategy. It’s really interesting, the breadth and depth of Commerce data; we literally have data that reaches from the ocean floor to the surface of the sun. We have data on the American public, on the economy, on American communities, on poverty, on housing. There is not a business in this country or a person in America that would not benefit from our data. Being very intentional and active about finding who our users are and identifying outreach strategies to get that data and information to them in the most useful way is one of our first short-term goals.

As a secondary goal, stepping up our engagement with the developer community, recognizing that in our open data and open data initiatives, making sure that innovators out there who are developers know that our data exists, and increase that feedback channel with them.

Lynn Overmann, Deputy Chief Data Officer at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Lynn Overmann, Deputy Chief Data Officer at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Commerce deals with a lot of sensitive data. What is that balancing act going to be like between opening up data and worrying about privacy?

We have a really diverse set of data holders, so there’s a lot of different privacy issues and problems. NOAA, they have it easy, they have no PII [personally identifiable information] at all. They have data that comes from weather satellites and sensors in the ocean, they can do the purest open play of data will ever occur across government. They can literally just throw their stuff out there in the open and let people come and play with it. They don't have to worry about protecting people's privacy.

And then there's Census, which is capturing information on every American citizen every 10 years. So how do we ensure that the privacy of the American public is protected as we're gathering that very valuable information from them. There’s a range of privacy issues, and we’re attuned to them.

We have to strike that balance just right so that we can maximize the value of these datasets and the information that can be gained from them while making sure we’re maintaining privacy.

Chief information officers in the federal government have the CIO Council -- what does the chief data officers’ community have? Is there a chief data officer community yet?

Right now, it's a relatively informal network because there’s so few of us. I'm actively doing outreach, talking to Dan Morgan, CDO at the Transportation Department, Micheline Casey, CDO at the Federal Reserve, and Brandon Pustejovsky, CDO at USAID. A chief data officer community makes tons of sense for a number of reasons. Were going to be facing common challenges, and I also just think when people have similar roles at different agencies, we can learn a lot from each other about what's working.

One thing that’s a challenge in government and something we see at Commerce as well is that we are structured in a very siloed manner. We're trying to combat that by standing up a number of cross-bureau initiatives. When you take a step back and look at government as a whole, we have very topically related data sets, across a number of agencies and departments. For example if you're talking about something like water management, that's between NOAA, Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the things we really need to do is look across our agencies and try to figure out ways we can organize our data more topically so that it’s more intuitive and easier for our users to access.

And how would something like that get done?

Some of it is just literally categorizing, and the inventory of what we have. And then putting all our assets on the table and figuring out what we have and what form they’re in.

What do you see as your biggest challenge within Commerce, and managing the data internally?

We’re actually really lucky at Commerce, because data has been in the mission from the very beginning. But like every other department, there's a range of familiarity with the concept of data and recognition of what they have in data. All of our bureaus are very focused with the mission of getting data out to their stakeholders. A lot of it is going to those bureaus and talking about best practices in data dissemination, and saying "You may not think you have data, but you actually do."

Another challenge is that we have smaller bureaus that are coming new to the data revolution, and then on the other side, we have the opposite challenge, we have the larger ones, like NOAA, who have so much data that figuring out the way to get it out most effectively is a huge challenge.

The hard thing that we’re still struggling with is the recognition that meta data standards, the way that we organize and describe our data, still make it very difficult for people to combine data sets from different government agencies.

One of the big challenges we have is not only how do we push our data out, but how do we push it out in such a way that really smart people can find it easy and do the analysis, I worry that we're creating an inefficient market. People have to spend a lot of time, energy, money and resources cleaning our data up so that it can actually talk to each other. 

We’re seeing a lot of innovation labs pop up at agencies. Are there any conversations about that happening at Commerce?

We really look to HHS's Idea Lab as a best practice, and it is certainly something that we are interested in exploring, to see if we can do something like that at Commerce. I think [Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker] sees tapping the internal expertise as a priority, and that is the direction that an innovation lab or Idea Lab type approach can be helpful in. We’re in the early stages of how we can make that happen, but certainly there's a lot of interest.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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