Will The Next President Run Obama’s Data Initiatives Into The Ground?

Under the Obama administration, data has taken centre stage, will it continue afterwards?


The news that the City of Boston’s Analytics Manager Kelly Jin has taken up a yet-to-be-named data science position in the White House means that President Obama’s track record of scooping up the nation’s best talent continues. Jin will join White House Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil, Director of the White House Police Data Initiative Lynn Overmann and Senior Advisor for Health IT Policy Claudia Williams.

The Obama presidency, whatever its failings, has always shown itself committed to data. From his very first election campaign, when he tied John McCain in knots with his data-driven ground game, Obama never seems to have lost faith, with numerous data-driven initiatives implemented since to solve a number of the country’s problems.

Perhaps the most important of these was the executive order making open and machine-readable data the new default for government information. Signed on May 9, 2013, the order ensures that information about all government operations is readily available to anyone who needs it, something vital to ensuring an efficient and transparent government, while also enabling significant opportunities for innovation.

In the last month alone, the White House has announced two major data-led initiatives. These include a new program to try and reduce the local jail population with the ‘Data-Driven Justice Initiative’ (DDJI). The US operates the largest prison system in the world. With just 5% of the global population, it accounts for almost 25% of all incarcerated individuals. The DDJI will see the government partner with seven states and 60 municipalities to use algorithms to get any nonviolent offenders who don’t pose a risk to the community out of the overcrowded prison system. Various federal agencies will work alongside private enterprises such as Amazon Web Services to help states and municipalities to help them improve their data-sharing and analytics efforts, helping to save vast amounts of taxpayer money and preventing people potentially turning violent in prison.

Another recent addition to the White House’s stable of data programs that Jin will be working on is President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). A major part of PMI is the newly launched PMI Cohort project, which it was recently announced will receive $55 million from The National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2016. The PMI Cohort Program aims to establish a database of 1 million or more US volunteers with the intention of bettering our ability to prevent and treat disease based on individual differences in lifestyle, environment and genetics. It will establish a database of the volunteers’ information, sequencing data and medical records and cross-referencing it with information about the patients’ cells, proteins, and metabolites, to establish what NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D said would be an ‘unprecedented resource for researchers working to understand all of the factors that influence health and disease.’

Big Data is a phenomena that has only really come into its own during Obama’s tenure, which makes it difficult to compare him to previous presidents or say what would have happened if, say, McCain had won in 2008. However, his reign is now coming to an end. Will his successor also realize the same potential of data to correct society’s ills?

Obama has already bequeathed much of his data staff to Clinton for her campaign, with Elan Kriegel, who ran data analytics for Obama, doing the same job for Clinton, and Obama pollster Joel Benenson now her chief strategist. She also has the enviable list of 20 million email addresses Obama used to target potential votes which she can now use with her own campaign materials. Given her acknowledgment of analytics as a useful tool, it is highly likely that she would continue to invest heavily, or at least continue Obama’s good work. Donald Trump, on the other hand, appears to have eschewed data in his campaign in favor of loudly shouting emotive, and, more often than not, factually incorrect slogans. He has previously dismissed political data operations as ‘overrated,’ and his campaign last year rejected a pitch from analytics giant Cambridge because it believed that the company charges too much for what it provides, according to two operatives who worked with the campaign. Such an attitude does not bode well for data analytics in the eventuality that Trump were to win. In fact, it probably doesn’t bode well for any technology at all. If he wins without having used analytics, you can likely assume the whole data analytics practice will be swiftly assigned to the dust bin.

President Obama, Big Data salutes you. 

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