It’s an honor of rare quality for
the president to create a position with
you specifically in mind.
yET THE FiRST TimE Patil realized the power of data was as a doc-
toral 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 refer-
ences 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.”
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 oppor-
tunity 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 compa-
nies 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 on-
line 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 Scien-
tists,” 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.