A Triton in the White House

(Photo by Chris Usher/Yahoo News)
Photo by Chris Usher

The president has put all of the country’s data in the palm of DJ Patil. In his other hand? A skateboard. A Triton’s journey from UC San Diego to D.C.

It’s DJ Patil’s job to change the world. The stakes are no more and no less as Patil, a board-riding maverick whom Silicon Valley tech giants at one time “didn’t know what to do with,” is now in charge of bringing our country into the future. And that future begins and ends with one word: data.

To call the data in question “big” is a bit of an understatement; it may very well be the largest cache in the history of mankind. As the White House’s first-ever chief data scientist, Patil’s job is to harness the unfathomable—and perhaps unquantifiable—amount of data at the government’s fingertips to change how our world operates.

The possibilities are endless: A new generation of medicine that could transform the quality and capabilities of our national healthcare system. Disaster relief that could save thousands of lives and exponentially more dollars. Improved governmental processes, faster federal services—the stuff of dreams and hopes we haven’t even begun to dream or hope for yet.

DJ Patil (Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb London 2012 Conference)
Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb London 2012 Conference

Yet the challenges are just as numerous. The government is years behind the private sector in utilizing data, and growing public concern about privacy and data leaks has reached a fever pitch that has bled into headlines and newscasts for years.

It’s all a momentous task for any data scientist, yet a fitting one for Patil, considering he’s the one credited with coining the term “data scientist” in the first place. His take on the job before him?

“I try and look at it as an opportunity.”

For someone who has spent his life fighting expectations and forging his own path, it’s hardly a surprise he would relish the challenge. After all, Patil had to fight just to get in to UC San Diego.

“My first experience was getting the thin envelope, the bad envelope,” he recalls. “I was rejected. But I thought UCSD was fantastic, so I appealed. The process was so that you just keep pushing until you make something work.”

As he would later become known as a risk-taker and iconoclast in his career, perhaps the long road to UC San Diego was the only way Patil could’ve become who he is today. His backstory is characterized by a slacker past checkered with suspension and low SAT scores, but Patil buckled down at UC San Diego. After a stint double-majoring in computer science and political science, he settled into mathematics and supplemented a ledger of required courses with those that seemed more interesting. Calling UC San Diego’s catalog “an incredible bounty,” Patil says he signed up for “the fun classes,” including ethics, Chicano theater and abstract algebra.

Yet the first time Patil realized the power of data was as a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, where he sacrificed hours of sleep to spend late nights poring over printouts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The goal was to use weather data to improve forecast models, which was a success. “We know [weather] exceptionally well,” says Patil. “The error rate in the three- to five-day forecast has dropped dramatically. Now we have a 14-day forecast with reliability.” Even now, tasked with prognosticating the very future of data itself, Patil still references his work in weather forecasting as scratching the surface of the benefits to be made upon the world. “[Data] is there,” he says, “to help us make smarter decisions.”

DJ Patil (Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb London 2012 Conference)
Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb London 2012 Conference

Patil’s work with NOAA evidenced the shared interest between universities and government to make greater use of data science. Following the world of weather, Patil applied his skills to the world of war, leading the Threat Anticipation Project for the Department of Defense (DOD), an endeavor that sought to utilize data to predict and curb terror threats and attacks. In the wake of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the project was a landmark in that the DOD saw an opportunity to utilize emerging sciences and disciplines to better respond to an ever-changing global landscape.

For Patil, it was the beginning of a realization that a new world of data science could shape and revitalize governmental works. But given that the real scene in data was 3,000 miles west, he returned to the private sector and to California, where he has spent most of his life. Yet much as he struggled to find his way through a rebellious youth, Patil struggled to find his place in Silicon Valley. Tech companies weren’t yet sure how to utilize him, as his work was well beyond the curve. As Patil told Yahoo! News earlier this year, the response he received time and again was, “We don’t know what to do with you.”

They’d catch on soon enough. From 2006 to 2015, Patil worked with a who’s who of companies and applications that have changed the way our modern lives function—including eBay, Skype, PayPal, and LinkedIn—plying his particular expertise in fashioning features that have, by design, remained inconspicuous while making our online experiences simpler and more user friendly. In the process he was selected by CNN as “One of Tech’s Most Powerful Disruptors,” named to Forbes’ list of “The World’s 7 Most Powerful Data Scientists,” and chosen as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in January 2014.

Not much later, D.C. would come calling again, this time with the job of a lifetime.

If Washington and Silicon Valley were in a race to make the best use of data, then D.C. was being lapped. This was hardly a result of the government’s lack of interest, but rather a shortfall of talent in the nation’s capital.

For years the best and brightest had chosen lucrative careers in California, forgoing public service to chase billionaire dreams and the stuff of technological lore. The Obama administration sought to change that dynamic by turning its attention to the tech sector in hopes of luring the most talented data scientists into public service by appealing to their sense of civic duty and offering access to what is perhaps the largest cache of data in the free world.

Patil was a natural fit.

It’s an honor of rare quality for the president to create a position with you specifically in mind, but the exaltation must be short-lived when Patil looks at the job ahead of him and sees a duty that’s as far-reaching and large in scope as the human imagination.

DJ Patil (Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb London 2012 Conference)
Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb London 2012 Conference

First on the docket is the Precision Medicine Initiative, a program helmed by Patil that intends to revolutionize the way we treat illness by utilizing the flourishing business of human genome sequencing.

In Patil’s words: “We’ve done all these incredible things to sequence the human genome and it’s becoming more affordable. [We’re] bringing that all together with your more generic health records … to unlock the next level of healthcare.”

If it sounds futuristic, it’s only because it is. Patil is working with the Office of Science and Technology Policy to combine genome sequencing and data analysis to transform how we treat individual sickness, a project that could very well carry medicine into a future we’d have a hard time recognizing.

As of right now, most diseases are treated in a catch-all fashion, meaning drugs and treatments are fundamentally similar in their design and application. If the Precision Medicine Initiative is successful in the way scientists think it could be, we might be looking at a future where every illness is handled in an incredibly more personalized manner that takes into account our individual genetics, environment and personal lifestyles to better focus and improve the quality of our care.

The power of data may be apparent, and its applications nothing short of revolutionary, but the public is rarely sold on the benefits of a brighter future alone. And they shouldn’t be—especially when it comes to data. Because when you’re dealing with a commodity as valuable as information, the liabilities are just as profound.

Data is there to help us make smarter decisions.

First and foremost, Patil has to make sure that privacy and ethical concerns are being respected at every turn. The process has to be open and transparent, particularly in an environment where U.S. citizens are ever more concerned about the creeping limits of governmental surveillance, an issue that Patil says his team is keenly aware of.

“When we’re thinking about the mission statement of [our] team,” Patil says, “one of the things that’s been really important is the word ‘responsibility.’ And so, our mission is to responsibly release the power of data for all Americans.”

It’s this emphasis on responsibility that should make all the difference when it comes to utilizing data in a world rocked by National Security Agency snooping and the resulting scandals and privacy encroachments worldwide. Patil is confident that his team is up to the task, especially with regards to precision medicine, stressing that every decision made will be centered on respecting “the patient, the provider, and the researcher.”

Once it is all achieved, however—once the security issues are dealt with, once the mountain of data is scaled and we can better see its myriad uses from the summit—it’s up to Patil and his team to imagine how that information could build us a better future.

And who would imagine, then, that the type of person who would lead us there is a skateboarding iconoclast outsider who had to scrape and claw his way into college, only to find his purpose therein? Such a person may not be at all who we first envision, but given a second look, maybe that’s exactly who we should’ve been looking for all along.

More Tritons in the White House

(Courtesy White House Photo Office)
Dr. Connie Mariano (right) with President Bill Clinton. (Courtesy White House Photo Office)

Dr. Connie Mariano, Revelle ’77, is the first military woman to become the White House physician to the president, the first woman director of the White House Medical Unit, and the first Filipino-American in history to become a U.S. Navy rear admiral. “I had to be strong but humble,” she says. “I had to become my father and my uncles while at the same time transcending my roots.”

After retiring from her post with President Clinton, Mariano founded the Center for Executive Medicine in Arizona and authored a memoir, The White House Doctor.

Elizabeth Phu, a 2000 graduate of the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (now Global Policy and Strategy), is the current director for Oceania and East Asian security affairs for the National Security Council, located at the White House.

She cites UC San Diego’s “incredibly complex position papers” as key prep for her career writing briefs for the secretary of defense, the national security advisor and the president: “Teamwork and the critical thinking—and fast writing—are exactly what have got me through every position in government since I graduated.”