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What Drives North Dakota’s New Chief Data Officer?

Kimberly Weis, a North Dakota native, talks about her plans for data management and artificial intelligence as she digs into her new job as the state’s permanent CDO. One of her most important lessons came via COVID-19.

Blue lines of data coming from the top of the image. Black background.
Quality, not just quantity: That is among the lessons guiding Kimberly Weis as she begins her job as North Dakota’s new chief data officer (CDO).

Weis, who has a public health background, told Government Technology that during COVID-19, officials and governments had access to oceans of data. But the quality of much of that information often was too poor for agencies to use in a quick and meaningful way.

That insight is hardly unique to Weis, of course.

But it’s important because the tech improvements she wants to help bring to the state will in part stem from that pandemic experience.

About two weeks into her new job as the state’s permanent CDO, Weis, who grew up in North Dakota, emphasized the importance of better analysis — and decision-making — through data.

“The data is available, but do we have the quality of data, the breadth of data, to do analytics?” she asked, talking about government in general space. “The analytics is lagging.”

That question, she added, not only applies to ongoing programs that involve the state, but upcoming tools that will rely on artificial intelligence. AI, after all, depends on the data being fed into it, all the information that is training the software and algorithms that power some of the newest features and services offered by public agencies.

As one can imagine, AI will take up a fair amount of Weis’ time. She said the state is forming a new team to help manage the transition toward artificial intelligence. The team’s work includes finding good AI “ground level” use cases for state residents and agencies, and “bringing our folks up to speed” on the rapidly expanding technology, she said.

The work also involves identifying the types of data that can support new AI efforts, and identifying the types of AI tools that “stakeholders” may or may not be ready for.

“What does it make sense to do now?” is how Weis put it. “What are those easy lifts?”

So-called data silos will consume her attention, too. Weis, who took over as interim CDO in September, said she plans to build off her predecessor’s efforts to better distribute and use data across multiple agencies instead of basically keeping information in separate compartments.

Meanwhile, she will help to figure out ways to use tech to better serve the rural and sparsely populated state — telehealth and teleservices, for instance, already bring “huge benefits” to residents, she said.

She rejects, however, the stereotype that, because of such factors, North Dakota is a technological backwater, saying the state has similar issues, needs and capabilities as other areas of the country.

“The key is constant collaboration with state partners and [sharing] best practices,” she said.

Weis began her career in public health and epidemiology, earning degrees and early experience in Minnesota before returning to North Dakota about 20 years ago.

“I loved growing up here,” she said. “I love the sense of community.”

Weis worked for the North Dakota Department of Health for five years as an epidemiologist before becoming a research analyst and then assistant direct of the data analytics team for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. She and her team eventually moved over to North Dakota Information Technology, after which Weis was promoted to data and analytics director.

While public health remains a top interest, Weis said, her new job fulfills her deep appreciation of data, earned through her first exposure to probability and statistics in high school, and then via her education in genetics and her professional field experience in epidemiology.

“I just fell in love with data,” she said. “Everything you do is driven by data.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.