Data empowers people to do amazing things, former U.S. Chief Data Scientist tells BYU students

Credit: Image from BYUtv broadcast
Credit: Image from BYUtv broadcast

PROVO, Utah — “When we empower people with data we find that they do amazing things,” Dhanurjay “DJ” Patil, former U.S. Chief Data Scientist, told Brigham Young University students during a campus forum on Feb. 13.

Data is powerful, and has the ability to answer so many of the problems facing people in society today, Patil taught.

“We have to make technology work for us, not against us,” he said.

Patil, a mathematician and computer scientist, became the first ever Chief Data Scientist of the United States after U.S. President Barak Obama appointed him to that position in 2015. He served in that role until 2017.

Known for coining the phrase “data science” and for his work in the tech industry, Patil focused his remarks on how people are using data to change society in positive ways.

“Thanks for bringing me back home,” he said in his opening remarks.

Patil spent his grade school years living in Utah while his father was a member of the University of Utah faculty.

“The community here in Utah … was seminal in my upbringing in helping me in my early years formulate not only my thinking about the world, but also how to interact with the world,” he said.

Recognizing how technology has drastically changed in the last few years, Patil spoke of the current way people live. Remembering how phones used to just be phones, how carrying stacks of maps when visiting or living in a new place was normal, and how “buying shoes on the internet was weird,” Patil spoke of how the climate — and even the expectations of people — has changed.

“Traffic — we want it completely in real-time,” he said. “We want the mapping to get us not only from point a to point b, but also all the alternative paths to get around any traffic between those two points.”

Whether it is mapping traffic, online shopping, delivery services, fitness trackers, or any of the many other tech transformations, Patil said the foundation of all of those changes is the same.

“When I think about that revolution and that foundation, it’s data,” he said. “It’s data that is powering that and changing the whole paradigm.”

Recognizing the need to use data wisely, when he became Chief Data Scientist of the United States Patil came up with the mission statement of his job: “To responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans.”

Sharing stories of people — of all backgrounds and ages — and organizations who have used data to create something positive, Patil said that data, when used in thoughtful ways can change society.

Most important, data “is about people first.”

Using the example of the 11.4 million Americans who cycle through jails each year, Patil spoke of finding appropriate solutions to help those people. Rather than just putting people in jail after an offense, Patil spoke of finding a way to find help for those suffering from mental illness, drug abuse or any other problem in need of serious reform.

“Let’s figure out who they are,” he said. “Can we intervene in the right way?”

Not only does it help people stay out of jail, it helps with the costs of running a jail.

Another example he shared was looking at police officers that had been reported as using excessive force. After sifting through the data, they found that a common theme of the officers and the reported incidents was that many of the officers had responded to a call about suicide or domestic violence involving a child prior to the complaint.

“How can we expect a human who has just gone through this type of system to then go and engage?” Patil asked.

Through building smarter dispatch systems based on data that looks at the assignments of the officers they are better taken care of and less incidents occur.

Another example included a young man with an unidentified illness whose father turned to the internet to see if there are any others in the world with similar symptoms. He also shared the story of two young girls who figured out how to launch a toy cat into space, and the story of a young woman who is working to develop an artificial kidney. A simple change to suicide hotlines — offering the ability for people to text rather than call — has also had positive outcomes.

All of these people have benefitted from the sharing of and application of data.

“The data is about people,” Patil said.

Patil asked listeners, “How do we use that technology for good?” and “what does it mean to really pledge to be … a citizen, especially in this age of technology?”

The engine to power change is driven by the next generation tackling problems, Patil said. Important to implementing change is remembering specific people.

“People are greater than data. We talk about those data points, they have names,” he said. “They all have names and we have to do a better job fighting on their behalf.”

Patil also encouraged listeners to “dream in years, plan in months, evaluate in weeks, but always ship daily.”

Shipping is a term used in technology to deliver a solution, he said. “Shipping could be writing, it could be talking with somebody. Find someway to be proactive every day.”

He encouraged listeners to start small, figure out how to make their idea a little bit bigger and scale it.

“Take ideas others might have, combining them, make it a ‘we’ problem, not an ‘I’ thing,” he said. “Make it more.”

And finally, he encouraged listeners to “always ask what’s required to cut the timeline in half, and what’s required to double the impact.” he said.

“I just showed you and talked about a whole bunch about data science but the thing I want you to recognize is that I haven’t showed you a single equation, I haven’t showed you a single graph — there’s no math,” he said. “The only thing I have done is I’ve told you the stories of those who are impacted by data or those who are doing amazing things with data, and the fundamental point at the end of the day is that no matter how much technology and data we use, it is about people first.”

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