The White House has a plan to help society through data analysis

September 30, 2015, 2:07 PM UTC
A Secret Service officer mans his post o
A Secret Service officer mans his post on the roof of the White House is seen on October 29, 2008 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Karen Bleier — AFP/Getty Images

The President of the United States has always had tools at his disposal when it comes to helping out American citizens—things like executive orders, veto power, and possibly the world’s largest soapbox. You can add data to that list, because in February President Obama added the position of deputy CTO for data policy chief data scientist to his cabinet, in order to help the White House better understand how it can protect citizens’ data, but also how that data can help save their lives.

The first person to hold that post is DJ Patil, one of the early leading voices in the world of data science, which is focused on new ways of collecting and analyzing the trail of data (often digital) that follows us everywhere. And on Wednesday at a conference in New York, Patil, who is best known for his tenure at professional networking site LinkedIn (LNKD), as well as an influential Harvard Business Review article about data science, laid out a series of new efforts that use data to support citizens’ well-being.

One of those will be using meetings and other avenues to bring together leading doctors, researchers and data scientists in an attempt to further the field of precision medicine and personalized health care. With the proliferation of sensors, fitness trackers, and health apps for mobile phones, as well as electronic medical records, it’s arguable there has never been a better time to make health care more individually targeted and more efficient.

“We’ve made tremendous progress on the human genome, but why don’t you see that benefit happen when you’re sick?” Patil asked during an interview with Fortune about the new initiatives. “… We’re really asking for people to start coming forward with not only their ideas, but how to they want to contribute.”

Other plans announced on Wednesday include opening up government data about child labor to concerned data scientists; recruiting folks to help analyze data about suicide prevention, social injustice and incarceration; a call for mandatory and “intrinsic” ethics instruction in every course teaching students data science; and an effort to help the transgender community create its own census of sorts, so that members and society can get a better grasp on the issues that matter to the group.

The latter is actually a classic data science type of problem, where a company (or in this case, a community) wants to understand something for which it has no real data to analyze. “In the transgender space, there exists no data,” Patil said. “There’s none.”

In the corporate world, for example, Google (GOOG) might build a social network in order to get data about how its users are connected to one another. In the case of the transgender community, the White House is kicking off a hashtag campaign across various social media so the community can send in issues they think are the most important. Eventually, the community will able to quantify these issues and track progress along those lines.

In the other areas the White House wants to address, there often exists data but the problem is no one really knows how to use it. Or it’s stuck within one agency, one police department, or one computer system, Patil explained. So while there are plenty of individual efforts underway to help nonprofits and other groups get better about analyzing their data—including some prominent ones led by Bloomberg and the University of Chicago—we’re nowhere near where we need to be in a lot of places.

The one exception is in health care, where lots of data and a pretty good understanding of how to apply it can help people and make clear what kinds of standards need to be in place so it’s usable across organizations. “We have like a decade delta in terms of how much energy has gone into health versus some of these other problems,” Patil said.

Once we can get to that type of broad understanding about data in those other areas, he noted, we can start having a realistic discussion about how taxpayer money might be applied in order to advance progress. “Think of us an an accelerant and catalyst [to making this happen],” Patil said. “…We’re one step away from that.”

To learn more about the power of medical data, watch this Fortune video:

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