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.
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 forg-
ing 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 enve-
lope,” 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 mathemat-
ics and supplemented a ledger of required courses with those that
seemed more interesting. Calling UC San Diego’s catalog “an incred-
ible bounty,” Patil says he signed up for “the fun classes,” including
ethics, Chicano theater and abstract algebra.
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.