Sizable Impact

Date01 July 2017
Published date01 July 2017
© 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley Online Library (
DOI 10.1002/jcaf.22287
Sizable Impact
Tim Chartier
Data is transforming many
aspects of our world. We
track personal health
data with phones, wristbands,
and watches. Cars collect data
to measure the safety of the
driver or enable an algorithm
to drive the car itself. The
impact of data in our health,
social lives, and businesses is
ever present in today’s world.
Given the breadth of data’s
impact, it isn’t surprising that
government works to harness the
power of the digital revolution.
In the fall of 2016, prior
to the presidential election, I
interviewed DJ Patil, the first
Chief Data Scientist of the
United States, a position cre-
ated by President Obama in
early 2015. A main mission
of his job was to harness the
power of our digital world,
while protecting our nation
from its threats.
Imagine the first days of
Patil’s job. Where do you start?
There are many, many issues he
could address. In his early time
in the position, Patil received
valuable advice from the presi-
dential science and technology
advisory group. They liked his
approach but noted that he was
considering problems in the bil-
lions of dollars. His thinking
reframed when they advised
that his job was “to think only
about the problems that are a
trillion dollars and up.”
Patil needed to think about
tackling issues of a new order
of magnitude. Still, looking
only for trillion-dollar prob-
lems wouldn’t, on its own,
determine what issues to tackle
or how to study them. How do
you refine your lens to perceive,
of the many pressing issues of
our country, what to consider?
Patil noted the inherent ten-
sion this way, “The hardest
thing about being in the White
House—and I’m literally over-
looking the front of the West
Wing entrance—is to really
gain perspective on what you
should work on. Everything
is critically important. There’s
a person at the end of every
He needed guidelines
to help guide the work. An
important breakthrough came
in developing two more guide-
lines for picking problems.
Patil described them this way,
“Does the problem impact
more than half the population
of the United States? Then
there are certain problems that
affect a population that has no
recourse. Our job is to make
sure we stand up for them.
That’s our framing. Those three
things: half the U.S. popula-
tion, one trillion dollars and
up, or a populace that has no
These metrics led to his
office working largely in health
care, the criminal justice sys-
tem, and climate change. The
impacts of the office were many.
Be careful, however, to think the
work always required advanced
data science. Patil quickly noted
an example from criminal jus-
tice, “Miami Dade, Florida,
saved literally 10 million dollars
[by coordinating mental health
services and their criminal
justice system] in the first year
by just passing a spreadsheet
around, and they found people
that are being cycled through
the system rather than getting
the help they needed.”
Data, big or even small,
can offer various directions
of exploration. Even before
studying the data, one must ask
what data to collect? Whom to
collect it from? How much to
collect? The questions can, in
themselves, lead to stagnation.
Faced with an enormous task,
Patil developed metrics to mea-
sure the suitability of potential
ideas. He sized up the issues.
Would they have an impact fit-
ting his needs and the mission
of his office?

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