Join the conversation on building data science capacity

Participants in the Federal Data in Action Summit express their views on key data questions by
moving around the room, with those on each side representing opposite ends of a spectrum and
those in the middle representing the middle ground.

December Summit launched conversation—now we want your thoughts

By Tim J. Gabel, @timgabel
Executive Vice President, RTI International

I had the pleasure of attending the December 15, 2016 Federal Data in Action Summit in Washington DC. The meeting was co-hosted by a team that included the National Science Foundation, the four Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs, and the Department of Homeland Security. It was a chance to spend an afternoon with an extraordinary collection of thought leaders, practitioners, and government agency representatives. The focus of the day – to “share lessons learned and best practices for building data science capacity” – is of great relevance to organizations and the U.S. economy.

Several attendees (myself included) presented “lightning talks” to stimulate a series of discussions. In my case, I shared the journey we at RTI International have taken to create the Center for Data Science, including some of the “sausage making” involved in starting a new organizational unit when you’re steeped in a history of statistical sciences. As I told the attendees, our challenges have not been around the “war for talent” — we have hundreds of statisticians, analysts, data managers, and research computing experts. Rather, we’ve wrangled with more mundane (yet surprisingly emotional) issues involving job descriptions and performance expectations as we’ve reclassified some staff and hired many more.

The summit utilized the talents of IDEO, the well-known design firm, to structure the discussions. They use a “creative tensions” approach, which I found to be a particularly effective way to trigger excellent discussion.

Picture a large open room with 60-70 people standing, and a strip of floor tape down the middle of the room. A question was posed along with two statements that could be considered opposite ends of a spectrum. The floor tape represented the “middle” ground and the two side walls represented the extreme points on the spectrum. The attendees moved around the room to stand in the location that best represented their perspective on the spectrum.

Example question posed: “What is the most important element for building a data-centric culture in organizations: a) having the right technology systems in place, or b) training and educating your people?”

Obviously, questions like this don’t have an empirical “right” answer. That’s why it’s called a “creative tension.” Perspectives and realities vary by organizational context. However, I was struck by one observation: some of the questions resulted in a classic bell-shaped (normal) distribution. People were clustered in the middle of the room with a diminishing number of people standing in the “tails” near the walls. Other questions had a very bi-modal distribution; for example, “What is the most important element that is holding back your organization from utilizing its data: not knowing how to collect and utilize the data or not having permission from leadership to use the data?” For these questions, almost nobody stood in the middle of the room, and a relatively balanced number of folks clustered on the two sides.

The ensuing discussion – “someone tell us why you moved to that point in the room” – helped illuminate the variety of perspectives in the audience. It also set the stage for follow-up networking and connection building.

It’s safe to say that there was universal agreement on one thing – the more the Regional Big Data Innovation Hubs can foster a sense of community and strengthen the fabric of collaboration, the better. To that end, I encourage you to take action to help build the South Hub community and our network spanning all four Big Data Innovation Hubs:

  • Review the list of “creative tension” questions below and ask yourself where you, or your organization, might fall on the spectrum.
  • Tweet your thoughts to me (@timgabel). I’ll consolidate and share with the Big Data Hub leaders.
  • Share your thoughts on the South Big Data Hub website using the comments feature at the bottom of this post.
  • Participate in the Data Science Capacity Survey.
  • Join the conversation on social media with #datascicapacity and #BDHubs

IDEO creative tension questions: 

  • Organizationally, is it more effective to grow data initiatives by getting top down buy-in from the outset, or to evangelize through small bottom-up successes?
  • Is data at its most valuable when it’s used for tactical decision making, or for strategic decision making?
  • The most concerted efforts need to be directed toward: making data and systems more open and communicative, or, making teams and disciplines more collaborative.
  • Data initiatives have the greatest potential for impact by: reshaping my organizations, or, as expressions of what you do in the world, e.g. helping you launch new products, services and initiatives.
  • In order to get stakeholders to share big data, it is most important for them to: clearly understand the value of data sharing, or, feel safe and supported.

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