The U.S. Department of Commerce is the latest federal agency to create a position to oversee its vast and growing data programs. On March 13, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced the appointment of Ian Kalin as the agency’s first chief data officer.
In making the announcement, Pritzker noted the agency’s unique situation regarding data, saying “No other department can rival the reach, depth and breadth of the Department of Commerce’s data programs. The Department of Commerce is working to unleash more of its data to strengthen the nation’s economic growth; make its data easier to access, understand and use; and maximize the return of data investments for businesses, entrepreneurs, government, taxpayers and communities.”
Commerce is one of the federal government’s larger agencies, employing nearly 47,000 workers in all states, territories and approximately 86 countries. The department runs numerous bureaus tasked with everything from national weather forecasts and patents to tracking the nation’s census.
Kalin, the former open data director of Socrata, a cloud software company, and a presidential innovation fellow, said he’s still in “listening mode” as he evaluates needs and scouts resources but intends to define a data plan soon. In the next two years he will oversee the creation of a platform that institutionalizes data flows into the department’s patchwork of products, applications, programs and services.
Kalin is a firm transparency advocate and championed many of Socrata’s open data services for governments. During his time as a presidential innovation fellow, Kalin served the U.S. Energy Department by leading its Energy Data Initiative, a campaign that unlocked the Energy Department public data for citizen and entrepreneurial benefit.
Kalin described the move to the Commerce Department as another step in his career within the open data movement and one that complemented private-sector innovation methods.
“This is the same thing as when you start a new business. You open up a business and say what am I going to need, what’s my product, who’s my customer, what are the competitive barriers to entry, the money I’m going to need to fundraise,” Kalin said “I feel as if I’m a startup working within a large and historic organization’
As CDO, Kalin will have to grapple with organizational complexities at the Department of Commerce.
“One of the struggles will be — that because we’re so large, because we’re so diverse — how we find the right kind of common platforms that can ultimately be helpful to each of our bureaus,” Kalin said.
Kalin expects to impact the department’s data programs through data analytics, public-private partnerships and modernizing outdated data tools and practices. He also hopes to boost the department’s open data initiatives. Currently the Commerce Department does not have an open data portal to call its own
The White House’s Project Open Data, a program to incentivize open data policy at the federal level, has given the Department of Commerce poor marks for its public data listings, due in part to a central data catalog that’s not easily discoverable or machine readable.
Kalin sees this as an avenue to spur change.
“It’s fair to say I don’t have decades to figure this out; I have to do some stuff pretty quickly,” Kalin said. “And so I’m going to make a plan and it’s going to have three things: scope, a schedule and then potential resources.”
Kalin plans to draw from talent inside the organization and out, including the U.S. Digital Services and 18F, a contracted federal development team with connections to Silicon Valley. Crediting Pritzker, Kalin said that without her data-driven leadership, it might have been impossible to even start such preparations.
“I want to understand what are the great opportunities, what are the great people, processes and tools that exist," said Kalin. "I want to find the best ways to support them and enhance new objectives."