The Chief Data Officer is a new role for the few agencies that have one in place and many are still figuring out exactly what their purview should be. While an agency's ability to process data relies on its technical capabilities, the CDO should be focused on the business mission and report up accordingly, according to several CDOs.

Rather than report directly to the CIO, CDOs should be under the chief operating officer or agency head, data officers said during Nextgov's Rise of the Chief Data Officer event on June 23.

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"Often times chief data officers are reporting to the CIOs," said Micheline Casey, CDO at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, noting she answered to the CIO while working for the state of Colorado. "But, quite frankly, the CDO is better off sitting on the business side or under a chief operating officer or chief risk officer so that they can be technology agnostic."

Casey admitted the CDO has a number of technology issues to work through, and should be in close communication with the CIO, however using data to make better decisions and improve operations is business-centric.

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"The CDO basically is your evangelist and your champion to talk about the importance of data management, specifically around analytics," FEMA CDO Scott Shoup said.

Having the technology in place to manage and analyze data is important but secondary to the real goal, according to Shoup.

"It's not about the tools," he said. "You do have to have tools … but an Excel spreadsheet is still better than what a lot of organizations may have now. You want to look at people first and the ideas they generate and then the tools are really later."

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Anthony Scriffignano, chief data scientist for Dun & Bradstreet, agreed, stating the primary role of data officers should be to identify the best, most reliable data available and explain how they can relate to the mission.

"We're drowning in data. The problem isn't how do we get more data, it's how we make more sense out of it," he said. "It's being able to use this information in ways that we probably never thought about before. And the awesome opportunity and also the awesome risk of getting that wrong."

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Dan Morgan, DOT CDO, noted chief financial officers are often "data nerds," interested in reporting standards and other opportunities to use information to streamline their work and lower overhead. In such cases, data science is about business outcomes, not the underlying technology that makes those outcomes possible.

"There was a business reason for making sure your financial data was right because you were going to report earnings and you were going to be at risk," Morgan said. "CFOs get it, chief risk officers get it, chief economists get it. We're training these folks to come out of school with the skills to put this data to work. The organization is not positioned to provide them the data in a way that actually makes them successful — and that's the core of what we're trying to solve."

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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