MDeC’s CEO remarked that he thinks Malaysia could do with a Chief Data Scientist, though if it materialises he doesn’t see the appointment happening before 2016. Reactions so far have mostly been negative; it’s not going to be helpful; it’s for mere buzzword compliance; it’s pointless without open data; etc.

The suggestion does raise many questions. It is very early days, but I suppose the point was to trigger discussion to tease out the best way to go about it, if it is to go ahead.

This must be a technocratic appointment so there’s probably not much need for the kind of broad-based awareness-raising that would be needed for a political appointment, but even in the technical sphere there’s limited understanding of what data science is, let alone what an appointment like this would mean.

Some quick thoughts I had:

  • Individual government departments and agencies already do analysis internally, but combining data sets between agencies is uncommon. Someone needs to deal with data governance and de-siloing necessary to enable such projects.
  • Some government agencies will have stronger analysis capabilities than others, and there will likely be a push to raise the bar overall. Someone will need to drive the upskilling through internal communications like best practice whitepapers at a minimum.
  • The Official Secrets Act is a well known hindrance, but apparently even digging beyond that, sharing data between government agencies is frustrated by legacy procedures and regulations, so much so that some in government have expressed the opinion that opening data sets up (i.e. Open Data) will likely be a better course of action than trying to figure out inter-department channels. With Open Data, any agency can simply get access to data from other agencies without suffering the horrors of internal government communication. What’s likely to happen here is the data sets will be opened up… and then nothing will come of it, leading to criticism that it was a waste of time. The gains will only be seen in the long-term.
  • Opening up government data sets (even in a tiered access platform) will involve data sanitising and redacting. This will be thankless and high-risk work; all it takes is one poorly redacted data set to be made public and to have someone make the right inferences to thwart the anonymisation process, leading to loss of confidence.
  • As privacy becomes an increasingly political issue, such an appointment will likely be expected to weigh in. Or be made a scape goat. Good luck with that.
  • Malaysia being what it is, such an appointment will be expected to somehow help the private sector get it’s act together as well. It will be tempting for the appointee to take a shortcut and check this box by invoking “government as a buyer”, which will be sad.
  • On top of all the above, there’s the little task of extracting valuable and actionable insights from the vast array of government, public, and commercial data sets that such an appointee will have at his disposal. Despite being very challenging, quick-wins have to come from here. Everything else depends on this.

There are lots of unknowns, but one sure bet is that Prabir Sen will have eyes on him from across the causeway.

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