Ian Kalin, Chief Data Officer at US Department of Commerce, on the value of accessing critical information
For the past year and a half, Ian Kalin has served as the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Chief Data Officer. His central mission is to advance the American economy and empower people by defining the Department’s data vision and improving its digital operations.
While he sees information as a kind of currency, “data itself is pretty useless,” Kalin says; to him, “it’s all about what you do with the data that makes it valuable.”
“My work builds on a commitment to finding ways to leverage modern resources to combat income inequality, to better understand how to get healthy food to children who need it, to revolutionize education systems, support systems and transportation systems — all using technology that is, by and largely, entirely normal in other sectors,” says Kalin, “but by its very existence, could be revolutionary in the public sector.”
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, power plant construction, tech start-ups, and White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, Kalin has worked with over 200 governments to help them better serve their citizen-customers and improve their own services.
In collaboration with leaders and innovators from numerous government organizations such as the Census Bureau, Patent & Trademark Office and the National Weather Service, Kalin works to improve the quality of data products and services delivered to U.S. businesses — hopefully creating jobs and saving lives.
“Data helps folks at critical points in their lives — but it doesn’t make it to them often enough,” said Kalin, explaining the importance of accessible, meaningful informational resources being available to individuals at transitional moments.
If systems were put in place to safely collect and better utilize constituent information, there could be massive cost-cutting and time-saving results.
Information already gathered from tax filings, for example, could be used to make filling out forms much easier: “Some of these questions, we already know the answers to; so why are we asking you again?”
But a fair amount of the most valuable data, he said, is often also personal information —including things such as current location, personal activities, and health records — that must be collected and stored with intensive security.
During his time as Chief Data Officer, Kalin has fought against income inequality by launching “Opportunity Project,” putting better information in people’s hands before they make big decisions on things like choosing a school or buying a home.
He spurred U.S. exports by connecting domestic manufacturers with previously unknown overseas opportunities — which required the development of big data prediction engine and a public-private partnership to enable data-sharing while protecting privacy — and improved digital services for intellectual property by building a first-of-a-kind, enterprise-wide search engine, liberating more patent and trademark data for public consumption in machine-readable forms.
Kalin only sees more opportunities for government modernization and optimization in the coming months and years.
“Changes in scale, systemic changes in middle class life, it creates new structures,” said Kalin. “I hope that people hear success stories and become almost frustrated that these things aren’t being done yet — that they fundamentally question why some of this stuff shouldn’t be in their city today, and that it leads to inspired action.”