A Chief Data Officer explains the biggest hurdles and how to get past them

Fri, 2016-06-17 06:00 -- SCC Partner

A few years ago, only big tech companies had positions like Chief Data Officer or Chief Innovation Officer. Now cities are finding value in the job — as they should.

But the job requirements may not be exactly what you expect. Consider Ali Farahani, who was Los Angeles County’s first Chief Data Officer. In an interview with for the SixThirty Group’s Explore Open Data Research project, he revealed that half of his job wasn’t about technology — it was about people. It was about trying to get people to understand what’s possible, why they should care, and how they should work together to put the data to the best possible use.

It’s an eye-opening interview that shed a lot of light of what you should be looking for in your first Chief Data Officer or how you can build a department to give that person the best chance of success. — Jesse Berst

"Explore Open Data" is a research project by the SixThirty Group, designed to promote open data standards and help publishers and users accomplish more with open data. A major part of our research is an interview series featuring experts in open data. Through their visions, we intend to elucidate the roadmap for the future of open data.

This week, we interviewed Dr. Ali Farahani, currently the Director of the Information Systems Advisory Board (ISAB), who was also the first Chief Data Officer in Los Angeles County. In the “Building a Smarter Los Angeles” conference that we hosted in March 2016, Dr. Farahani described “open data standards” as the key to the future of open data. This interview will be divided into two sections and published separately: 1) Inside the Life of a Chief Data Officer; 2) Open Data Standards Beyond Formats.

Dr. Ali Farahani has worked in the County of Los Angeles for almost 28 years. He began his career with the county in 1988 and worked his way up -- becoming the Chief Information Officer in the Los Angeles County Probation Department in 1999, the Director of Integration Services at ISAB in 2006, the first Chief Data Officer for the County of Los Angeles in 2012, and all that led to his current position as the Director of the Information Systems Advisory Board (ISAB) this February. Having worked with data and information throughout his career, he is an expert and a strong advocate for the Open Data movement.

Question: What was the regular work routine as a Chief Data Officer in LA County?

Dr. Farahani: As the first Chief Data Officer, I had to create the routine. First, for any new program, you have to have a documented charter, to make sure that people understand what it is. Second, you also need a governance group to support the charter. So the first thing I did was to establish an information management governing committee. We called it the Enterprise Information Management Working Group, and it consisted of 15 people from different departments in the county. We developed the charter, which detailed our plan at each milestone. Most of my initial routine was around building that governance model. Once the strategic plan was put together and specific projects were identified, getting people on board, getting the budget and building the team became my next areas of focus.

Question: As the first Chief Data Officer in the LA County, what did you find most rewarding and challenging?

Dr. Farahani: The biggest challenge of a Chief Data Officer is that you have to build a governance model where you collaborate with a lot of people. On one hand, the Chief Data Officer needs to focus on the business objectives of the county, so you work with the business executives to see how their data can be part of a broader business solution. On the other hand, you have to work with all of the different players in the data space in the county to get things done. Because you have to work with a large number of people in different roles with different capacities, I would say that the biggest challenge is always that collaboration across multiple business domains, areas, and levels in business, IT, technical, and non-technical.

The rewarding part is that you get to create things from scratch. It is a very different experience that having someone tell you “hey, these are the things you have to do and you just do a good job.” There is that sense of accomplishment from creating something from scratch. I think that is always very rewarding.

Question: Many city governments are looking to hire their own Chief Data Officer, what do you think makes a successful Chief Data Officer?

Dr. Farahani: The person must be excited about data. This can't be just another regular job. This person should always be talking about data, how data is changing the world, and how we can use data to improve government services. A Chief Data Officer must have a vision for how information and data can improve the business side of government. It cannot be someone who has the technical skills but does not have a vision for managing information as an asset and the great opportunities around open data or does not know anything about what other government agencies have done in this space.

Lastly, the Chief Data Officer is someone who must be able to work independently as well as bring teams together. 50% of the job is people skills. The Chief Data Officer has to have the ability to bring people together, to build consensus, and to get people motivated. So I would say the three main qualities of a Chief Data Officer are: the person must be definitely excited and motivated by data and the role of data in business; second, the person must have a decent level of understanding of data sciences and open data; third, the person must have very strong management and people skills to be able to execute.