Defining the Role of the Chief Data Officer

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, the Open Data Playbook for Government. Download the full guide here.

Imagine you’ve been named Chief Data Officer at your organization. You’re now charged with ensuring data is accurate, current and properly managed. It’s also your job to ensure that data is available on demand for other departments and divisions within your organization to use.

For a growing number of public sector CDOs, this is their new reality. What makes these new chiefs so valuable is that very few people think about what needs to be done with the data and how to properly manage it, said Rado Kotorov, Chief Innovation Officer and Vice President of Market Strategy for Information Builders. The New York-based firm provides a one-stop-shop for all the technologies that empower agencies to manage data, publish it and provide the right interfaces for different people to consume data or use it to build applications.

Although citizens and employees are demanding more access to data, they cannot be the sole drivers of the data movement. Here’s why: “Prior to establishing a Chief Data Officer, there were many glitches in the data, whether the data was not integrated, not cleansed, [or] not managed properly,” Kotorov said. “So when the stakeholders actually got access to the data, it was in many cases useless data.”

Benefits of a Top-down Approach

The grassroots open data movement led by civic hackers, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens is valuable, but even better is a top-down approach led by CDOs who have defined roles and can own the data and properly manage and disseminate it, Kotorov said. This level of care is critical because “data is an elusive asset,” and it’s constantly changing, he added.

Kotorov equates today’s CDOs to building managers, who own property but allow renters to use their space and customize it to their liking. Likewise, CDOs are the owners of the data, but developers can request data sets, combine them and create new services and products.

“It really boils down to the fact that we need somebody to manage the data as thoroughly as a building,” Kotorov said.

CDOs may be the building managers, but they don’t necessarily build the final data applications for end users, Kotorov noted. “And it’s important to keep that in mind because if the Chief Data Officer starts doing that, essentially it will go back to the old-world thing: the data warehouse.”

This approach created a bottleneck for everything, including user requests for data because all the data was compiled into a single database and not easily searchable. Organizations can’t afford to return to that state. Some organizations are even shying away from the use of terms such as data governance, which imply a centralized approach to data management that limits people’s access to it. Ultimately, open data is about liberating information, not limiting availability.

“It all boils down to accountability and trust and efficiency,” which will be born out of the open data movement, Kotorov explained. These characteristics help lay the foundation for a strategy that Kotorov refers to as managing data as a strategic asset. The real value of this approach comes from the quantifiable benefits data provides, whether its direct monetary benefits from using GPS data, or funding provided for data projects that benefit the public.

Unlike private companies, the government isn’t focused on monetizing data and charging citizens to use it. Instead, the focus should be on the CDO’s role as a custodian of data and also how frequently the data is being used, Kotorov explained. If you have a website, you should be measuring traffic to that site. You can compare your internal initiatives to work being done in the private sector. He also suggests asking the tough questions: Is there really a return on investment for your service, even though it is provided for free to the public? Kotorov calls this an indirect measure of value. Information Builders is helping agencies to extract that value.

“We saw the emergence of data as an asset — as the most important asset — and decided that we’re going to provide all the technologies that allow you to manage data through the whole lifecycle of data,” Kotorov said.

He offered these takeaways for agencies as they continue their open data journey:

  • Having the right people in place makes all the difference for the success of your open data efforts.
  • You don’t govern the data; you manage the data.
  • This may seem minor, but glitches to the measurement unit of your data and other slight changes can very quickly destroy the value of the data.
  • CDOs can help data users understand what properties of the data need to be updated and maintained.
  • Focus on creating a culture where data is treated like an asset.
  • CDOs are the storekeepers of data, and they are charged with making it accessible.


Screenshot 2015-08-05 13.10.38

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