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Commerce Shares Tips on Developing Analytics Experts

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide Embracing Data Analytics: Common Challenges & How to Overcome Them. Download the full guide here

There’s no shortage of analytics tools and platforms for agencies to choose from. But what good are those tools if employees aren’t trained and empowered to use them? We heard those sentiments echoed by nearly half of our survey respondents, who cited a lack of technical expertise as their biggest barrier to using data analytics.screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-10-49-39-am

The truth is employees with “data” in their titles aren’t the only ones who need analytics skills. The ability to quickly and accurately analyze data for trends and insights is a skill set that a growing number of government employees need to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. Just knowing when to use analytics is a basic skill that all employees should have.

That’s why Commerce rolled out a pilot program in spring 2016 to help educate and empower its employees to make data-driven decisions. Through the program, known internally as the Commerce Data Academy, employees can enroll in data science, development and User Experience (UX)/ User Interface (UI) design courses. So far, the courses have attracted more than 1,500 attendees (that number includes individuals who have taken multiple courses).

Commerce Data Service (CDS), a startup within the department, was responsible for standing up Commerce Data Academy. CDS is focused on applying user-centered design and Agile methodologies to data insight and product creation.

But training doesn’t stop after the courses are completed. Commerce is empowering employees to put the knowledge they’ve gained to good use. To better understand how agencies can develop analytics talent in-house, GovLoop sat down with Justin Antonipillai, Counselor to the Commerce Secretary, with the delegated duties of the Undersecretary for Economic Affairs, and Jeff Chen, Chief Data Scientist at Commerce. Below are some of the key tips they offered:

Look and listen to where the needs are. 

Start by talking to executives or managers within your office, agency or department. Where are their pain points? What needs improvement? This will help inform the direction you need to take with any data tutorials or trainings.

“The team recognized the need and desire for training on data science, and having experts like Jeff on data sciences and also on the development side, [we] spotted the opportunity to build capacity through training,” Antonipillai said. “It’s a good way to actually learn about the challenges in the bureaus.”

Learn to diagnose the problem. 

Many organizations misdiagnose some problems as technological in nature when communication is the root cause. When you understand the root cause of a problem, you will be better suited to use data to solve it.

Commerce is building these basic problem-solving skills across its workforce through the academy pilot.

“You grow their skills through actual instruction but then have an arrangement where the bureaus that are providing training to their own folks on data sciences detail a group of [them] to work directly with the CDS [Commerce Data Service], and that has two benefits,” Antonipillai said.

Employees get to work on specific projects that solve a problem in their bureau. For example, the Census Bureau developed an online capability for citizens to view and build data visualizations with income data by gender, age and other categories.

The other benefit is that Commerce increases the depth of data science knowledge around the department, and employees eventually become ambassadors of good technology practices in their bureaus. Many are showing their bureaus what’s possible, Chen said.

Start with the basics and build on them. 

Most people in the initial training cohort were Microsoft Excel users who were not familiar with programming languages for data analytics, such as R or Python. So “I fundamentally went with a model of teaching the basic data sciences and the tools you need around them, with the idea of building from there,” Chen said.

Now there’s a cohort of employees who have been exposed to these programming languages and other open source technologies. Commerce worked with General Assembly, a global network of campuses for technology, business and design, to develop the first handful of courses. For the second round, the department relied on the collective expertise of its CDS staff.

Solid management for training programs must be in place. 

Even on the administrative side, it takes a fair amount of time and capacity to manage the academy, Chen said. There’s a
lot of investment by the data experts at Commerce to launch, monitor and run the program, including mentoring employees.


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