Rejoining Federal Service as the next U.S. Chief Data Scientist

[The author, dressed in office clothes, and her young son measuring anti-slip tape for a wooden ramp]
Aug 21, 2006 | My oldest son and I measuring the anti-slip tape for the ramp to his new child care center — a licensing requirement before the center opened a few weeks later

I’m excited and honored to be joining the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the role of U.S. Chief Data Scientist. This professional transition — and the times we are in — have me reflecting back on the months and years after Hurricane Katrina and how that experience shaped the work I do.

Many lives were destabilized due to the storm. In my case, two trees fell on our house. We lost power for six months, but didn’t get any flooding. More broadly, the city was reeling from the infrastructure failures of the federal levee system. At the same time, the faltering infrastructure of schools, utilities, child care, medical and mental health care loomed large in our collective attempts to rebuild in a way that included everyone, equitably.

My husband was deployed overseas with the military when our toddler and I moved back home, so it was just me and the kid in a house with no power. The neighbors were kind enough to string an extension cord through the window so I could power a space heater and a dorm fridge. Kind neighbors and clever hacks were a constant theme in the region’s recovery. I am reminded of what historian Andy Horowitz wrote after Hurricane Ida this summer: that resilience “usually means that we should attempt to find individual solutions to our structural problems.”

We sure had plenty of structural problems.

The loss of our child care was a confluence of structural failures. Our son’s child care center took damage in the storm and the owner wasn’t able to move back because her children’s elementary school hadn’t reopened. Then, with property values skyrocketing, the center’s landlord decided to sell the building. To top it off, teacher wages were insufficient to live in this newly overpriced city. At the time, I didn’t fully understand how interconnected these things were, but I felt the lack of child care acutely.

Meanwhile, I had work to do. I co-directed the Data Center, a nonprofit that repackaged publicly available data in a way that was relevant and actionable for local community organizations and neighborhood leaders. We’d spent the years before Katrina trying to infuse data into local decision-making, and now people were begging us for data where there was none.

Indeed, the data we’d been using was rendered instantly historical by the storm. This was all before “open data” — four years before President Obama’s Open Government Directive — so our work was scrappy and involved lots of spreadsheets, DVDs, and scraping public web sites. We started rounding up data that would be relevant to the recovery. Where were people moving back and what services did they need? Which services were open? We catalogued clinics, emergency rooms, police and fire stations, schools, and of course, child care centers.

During the day, my colleagues and I were mapping closed child care centers; on nights and weekends, I volunteered with a group of parents trying to open a new center for our own little ones. In the meantime, we pooled babysitting and took in each other’s children to form a patchwork quilt of care. One year after the storm, the new center opened.

Fast forward to today, where 3 in 10 adults experience child care disruptions. The list of reasons is long. Covid shuttered many centers. Those that remain are experiencing widespread worker shortages, in part because of low wages. At the core, the pandemic has exposed just how brittle our nation’s caregiving infrastructure is.

Brittle infrastructure is the lived experience of millions of families. But with the pandemic, the Federal Statistical System kicked in with timely data to quantify the problem with the Census Bureau’s Household and Small Business Pulse Surveys. The Pulse surveys are just one of many data innovations at the national and local level to come from this crisis.

I’ve written before that if public interest data science doesn’t start out personal, it eventually becomes so. With the pandemic, all of America has experienced living through a disaster and understands how critical data are when the world turns upside down.

The current moment is an extraordinary policy window for the Biden-Harris Administration to shore up our nation’s data infrastructure and reconfigure the public decision-making process so data scientists can best support the design and implementation of policies to improve the lives of all Americans.

Having spent the last twenty years of my career on the boundary between data and action, every time there is a disaster, it still feels like we start over from scratch. Compounding crises continue to pummel our communities in the form of wildfires, extreme weather, infrastructure failures, police violence, hate crimes, and civil unrest.

This pandemic — similar to Katrina and all disasters — amplified existing disparities across racial, ethnic, income, and gender lines. Though obvious to those who are impacted, these disparities are often invisible to policymakers because of incomplete, inaccessible, inaccurate, and/or lagging data.

But we can get ahead of this. As I head into this new role as Chief Data Scientist, I’m focused on addressing these questions: What data do we need to design an equitable recovery? How will we use that data responsibly and to ensure we are building back better? What can we do to support the Federal, Tribal, state, and local data practitioners so they can help deliver better outcomes for the American people?

The shocks and stressors of the past 18 months represent a threshold event that can dramatically change the role of data science in our society for the better.

With historic levels of resourcing through the American Rescue Plan, Build Back Better, and other Federal investments, we have a unique opportunity to infuse data into policies and programs that will deliver on the Biden-Harris Administration’s priorities of pandemic recovery, the climate crisis, economic prosperity, and racial equity. However, that opportunity is time-limited, racing against a strong societal pull to “get back to normal.”

Our challenge is how to create durable change at scale within the shortest time possible. And we can’t do it alone. As my predecessor and mentor DJ Patil likes to say, “data science is a team sport.”

I come into this role having worked on great teams – most recently, co-authoring the Pandemic to Prosperity series tracking the data necessary for an equitable recovery, and advocating for greater data transparency at the Federal and local level on issues as diverse as the 2020 Censuspolicingdisasters, and climate change. When I co-led the Police Data Initiative in the Obama Administration, I had the privilege of working with police chiefs and data leads from more than 100 law enforcement agencies. During my time at the City of New Orleans, we partnered with Code for America to activate data about blighted, storm-damaged properties to accelerate neighborhood recovery. And from the decade I spent working in the nonprofit sector, we had to get creative with partnerships to fill critical data gaps.

The mission of the U.S. Chief Data Scientist is to responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans. I’m eager to get started and look forward to collaborating with data innovators already working inside of Federal government and at the State, Tribal, and local level.

Please follow me on Twitter @DeniceRoss46 and stay tuned for ways to scrub in. We’ve got a lot of work to do!