Boston's First CDO Can Set Example for City Governments

At the end of May, the city of Boston named Andrew Therriault as its first CDO—chief data officer. Therriault, former Director of Data Science for the Democratic National Committee, comes with an impressive background. He has a B.A., M.A. and PhD. in politics from NYU. Before joining the DNC, he served as senior data scientist with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, whose client list includes global companies, advocacy groups, and political organizations as well as former presidents. So, he's certainly qualified.

As mentioned in a prior blog, a lot of the people we talk to in large enterprises are CDOs. Or, if they don't have that title, they have those responsibilities, which Debra Logan of Gartner describes as the "glue between data strategy and metrics." Not many have Therriault's credentials. But what many have that Therriault may not are the "street smarts" that come with waging turf warfare. Whenever organizations undergo large scale changes—like operationalizing an effective approach to Big Data—resistance and turf battles inevitably emerge.

Nevertheless, Therriault is a great choice for the city's first CDO. Boston already has a reputation as a leader in data-driven government. It's not new to analytics and decisions based on them. And it's not afraid to use technology in unusual ways to solve problems. Just think back to when Boston employed Code for America's "adopt-a-hydrant" app to enlist residents to help keep fire hydrants uncovered during heavy snow storms.

Cautious Optimism

What kind of data ecosystem and tools will Therriault inherit? I don't care about what his first few weeks on the job are like. But what about the first few months?

The CDO is a new position, whether it's in the public or the private sector. To some extent—for better or worse—they're making it up as they go along. Someone with Therriault's pedigree knows exactly how things should work. But as the CDO, his main job will be describing a vision that everyone can buy into and that he'll have the resources to implement.

In the private sector, many CDOs inherit an immature and fragmented data ecosystem. Frequently, this situation is compounded by the proliferation of analytics tools across an organization and various shadow IT efforts that involve business units creating their own databases, with no governance or oversight. Newly-minted CDOs may also need to close a Big Data skills gap, re-architect various processes that cut across business and functional units, and foster a data-driven culture. All of these challenges surely have analogs in the public sector.

On the same day that Boston announced Therriault's appointment, Attivio published the results of a survey on the often huge disconnect between organizational excitement over Big Data and the ability to execute. For example, the survey found that while 98 percent of respondents stated their firms were committed to grounding their decision-making in data, only 23 percent felt that they were extremely successful in making data-driven decisions.

So, although I'd like to wish Mr. Therriault smooth sailing, I know that's not realistic. Instead, I'll wish him a successful data-driven voyage. 

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