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The Similarities Between Learning a New Language and Using Data Strategically

I am literally on my way to the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) summit in New York City. I am going to deliver a keynote on how to best build a citywide strategy for using data as an asset. I believe that I have a unique way of looking at this issue. I’ve dealt with data from all sides: government, private sector and academia.

Some people believe you must first be able to manage data as an asset. Then, you can use it for operational purposes such as predictive analytics, operation business intelligence or strong city indicators and metrics.

Then there are some who are in the camp of doing analytics projects. They believe the more you do them, over time, the better you will get at managing the data. This is because you will be getting better at executing analytics work. I however, believe that it makes more sense to do both in concert with each other.

Learning a new language is a very appropriate analogy for how I believe we as cities should learn how to use data as an asset. We know it is easier to learn a new language when you are younger as opposed to when you are older and more set in your communication ways. The same thing can be said for adopting data as an asset strategy citywide.

It is exponentially easier to do this when you are in the “young” stage: buying your data management systems for a city from the ground up. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in many cities. In most, if not all our cities, we have legacy systems that do their job methodically and consistently, and may be difficult and costly to rip and replace.

In this instance the challenge is how do we incorporate data as an asset strategy into the existing legacy city data framework? In many instances these systems were not built and deployed with data sharing, or transparency in mind.

In my talk at the CDO summit, I will discuss how executing projects that have defined and discrete objectives require sharing from multiple citywide and private-sector data sources. This will undoubtedly result in running into obstacles, and these will require both compromise and creative solutions. This is akin to deploying a full immersion strategy for learning a new language. It will be frustrating and seem impossible at first, but give it time and it will become easier and easier to understand and speak the language.

When it comes to learning to speak a new language, it’s also very important to consider the learning tools, process and syntax. This is analogous to understanding the quality of the technology with which we deploy, as well as how we use this technology and when. The language syntax is similar to understanding and deploying data standards and protocols for security, privacy, storage and sharing. To do this it takes time, meetings and countless conversations across the city to get consensus and buy-in.

I would be remiss if I did not add that learning to speak a new language differs based on the type of language. Understanding the origin of that language is key. For instance, understanding the etymology of the language may shift how you learn that language. I know that I will take on learning Chinese much differently than Spanish based on understanding the culture and etymology of the language.

What I am getting at here, and what I plan on talking about at the summit, is that understanding that the base framework of most of the data a city uses to impact operational capabilities tends to be geospatial in nature. Building a capability to store this type of data as an asset requires the city to understand this location-based framework.

Cities must learn to use their data as an asset. This requires implementation and execution of operational analytics work. It also requires thoughtful data management best practices and tactics.

I don’t have an opinion as to which should come first; managing the data or using it in a project. I do know that for a city to be prepared to use data when solving complex problems in a timely fashion with a high level of accuracy and precision, both have to be happening in parallel. And location should be the etymology for this to happen.

Amen Ra Mashariki is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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