Federal IT Leaders Discuss Need for Data Culture Change

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Federal IT leaders discussed challenges within their agencies of overcoming divergent cultural views to data sharing during Veritas’ Public Sector Vision Day on Thursday.

Panelists said that the biggest obstacle to more sharing and organizing of data is often pushback from within agencies themselves.

“One of the issues we come upon is that people are a little reluctant to talk about the data that they have sometimes, because they think that central IT is going to try and take control of it,” said Dorothy Aronson, CIO at the National Science Foundation (NSF). “One of the things we’ve done at NSF … is making it without strings … and convincing them that sharing their data will get them some more information.”

At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the story around sharing data is different, noted Donna Roy, interim chief data officer and executive director of the agency’s Information Sharing and Services Office.

“We share data often, across the government and at least with 100 countries, and with state, local, tribal, and private sector partners. There isn’t anyone in the world of homeland security we don’t share some data with, and it is a cultural issue much more than it is anything else,” she said.

However, that doesn’t mean DHS doesn’t run into its own cultural challenges on data.

“When you talk about how you use the data, even within my own agency, how you use it is where you start to think. There’s a reason why they call data the new oil. It’s not because it’s so valuable, it’s because it’s so contentious, and he who has it has the most power,” Roy said, providing the example of component agencies worrying about immigration data being misconstrued in public.

April Wiggs, chief of the Enterprise Project Services Division within the Department of Technology Services in the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, noted that while the judicial branch is working to share more information with the public, the fear of misuse also raises concerns among her constituents.

“That’s one of the things the Judiciary is concerned about, is how do you take our data and use it for the right reasons, instead of altering it?” she said.

Aronson added her own concerns over misconstrued data.

“We’re very bad at sharing data within, and it’s for the reason of trust. We want to speak from NSF with a single voice. Even within our organization, we don’t want one person to say our percentage of spend is X and someone else to say it’s Y.”

One of the cultural impediments to data sharing could also be the legal framework for Federal agencies.

“I think one of the ways we can actually improve in using our data more effectively across agencies, one of the things that probably keeps us from doing it like other organizations, is that I think someone needs to sit down with the Privacy Act [enacted in 1974] and really take a look at that,” said Tony Peralta, data architect at the Bureau of Fiscal Service, within the Department of Treasury.

While the debate over how to share data is needed, the need improve the culture around data is a pressing one.

“Everyone’s got some sort of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI) strategy, and our adversaries have a machine learning/AI strategy that’s much more aggressive. I don’t know if we have the luxury of arguing this for too long, because our data is going to be used against us, or used with us as we move forward,” said Roy.

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