Chief Data Officers Increasing Presence in States and Cities

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced plans to hire a Chief Data Officer for the Department. Secretary Pritzker emphasized the breadth and depth of information that the Commerce Department handles and says the new Chief Data Officer will be able to coordinate data collection and help the agency use data strategically. Many states, counties and cities have already realized the benefits of chief data officers. As of July 2014, seven states -- Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas and Utah – have hired chief data officers, and cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have incorporated the position.

Chief data officers are chief-level executives responsible for using data as an organizational asset to inform decisions and improve operations, effectiveness and efficiency. In governments, CDOs make sure that data is collected and used to address decisions about policy issues and encourage departments to take full advantage of available data. 

There is now more data in more formats than ever before. Organizations, including business and government entities, communicate and connect with clients and constituents in new ways that are constantly changing as new technologies emerge. Text messaging, social media, blogs and mobile apps are just a few kinds of data that must be managed by organizations which previously only dealt with traditional electronic data such as emails and websites. It is the CDO’s responsibility to stay up-to-date on emerging technological trends and reach out to citizens. Additionally, managing and consolidating data can help governments identify and avoid potential risks. 

 Maryland is a prime example of the benefits of a chief data officer and embracing new ways of communicating with constituents. During Hurricane Irene in 2011, Maryland used two information-sharing interfaces, StateStat and SeeClickFix, to foster two-way communication between citizens and officials about hurricane data, intended to improve safety and officials’ ability to respond to problems. These offer a route for citizens to report road hazards or other safety concerns, such as downed trees or power lines, as they encounter them, and notifies state officials immediately for quicker response. StateStat is a performance measurement and management tool that tracks 13 state agencies on a monthly basis. By using data to spot trends, Maryland hopes to be proactive rather than reactive in addressing problems and finding solutions. 

 Proactive prevention is not always possible, unfortunately, but chief data officers and consolidated government data networks can discover current problems and stop them before they get any worse. For example, in mid-2014, Utah's chief data officer, who holds the title Chief Economist in the Office of the Auditor, conducted an audit of Utah’s tax system from 2006 to 2013 and discovered that the current system had undertaxed property owners, resulting in over $100 million in lost revenue. 

Improvements and solutions such as these are contingent upon cities and states collecting data, compiling it into useful formats and distributing it before disaster strikes. It is CDO’s responsibility to lay the groundwork for data collection and utilization to help constituents and officials both during times of emergency and normalcy. 

Previously, organizations operated with only a Chief Information Officer or a similar position acting as a data steward. These individuals’ responsibilities were limited to collecting, formatting, and updating data. However, changing times have placed a greater burden on data governance and presented new opportunities for organizations that embrace rather than simply manage data.

Chief data officers potentially offer several advantages. CDOs often begin by standardizing data collection and formatting. This increases the ability of citizens and government employees to access and use data to solve problems or innovate. By collecting and analyzing data across a range of departments and issue areas, CDOs can identify new opportunities and improve government performance. For example, Philadephia city departments each collected different information about properties. When the city hired Mark Headd as Chief Data Officer, Headd was able to draw from several different departments’ data systems to create a comprehensive property report. Similarly, Chicago used data collected by several different entities to discover a relationship between stolen trash bins and power outages that black out streetlights.

In addition to state and city-level chief data officers, several counties across across the nation have some form of chief data officer, including Miami-Dade, Florida, Wake County and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland. Federal agencies are also considering CDOs, already have CDOs, or are in the process of creating a CDO position. Examples include the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Communications Commission