Like Ambulances, Data Needs to be Treated as a Strategic Asset

Why we need more government Chief Data Officers

Ambulances aren’t magical, self-maintaining machines. They must be stocked with bandages, defibrillators, and burn kits. Like any other car, they must have air in their tires, plenty of fuel, and working headlights. They are frequently inspected, and repaired or replaced when they break down. They are upgraded when new techniques for treating patients are developed. Ambulances cannot do these things for themselves; people are responsible for taking care of these important tools. When there are several ambulances in a fleet, there is usually a person who manages that fleet, ensuring that all of them are ready at a moment’s notice to help save lives.

Red Ambulance
Image By Ibagli (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why is it that data usually doesn’t have this same support from the people it helps?

I’ve talked with many government leaders and encouraged them to “treat their data as a strategic asset,” but what does this actually mean? Eric Jackson at the City of Asheville poses this answer:

* It is used to improve decision-making that influences outcomes tied to strategic goals;
* It is used by external actors to create economic or social value for the community.

These are solid notions, but I would like to approach the answer by breaking down the term “strategic asset”.

An asset is something which has value to a person or organization. Eric’s thoughts above speak to the the value of Asheville’s data. In the opening paragraph of her article Planning the Data-Driven City, Laura Adler cites more examples of how data provides value to governments:

Urban data is the bedrock of the performance management programs that allow cities to ensure continuous improvement. Reliable data can facilitate interagency collaboration, improve partnerships with the private sector, and expand public engagement. Innovative uses of data allow cities to enforce regulation and improve social services.

A strategic asset is one which, if missing, would severely limit the function of a person or organization. The success of medical professionals who help people in need would be significantly limited if ambulances went missing. They are undoubtedly a strategic asset.

If you asked every government employee how they would do their jobs without Excel files, Access Databases, desktop, mobile, intranet, or cloud-based applications, only a small percentage might say they could remain effective at their job.

But data is just ones and zeros, stuck inside our memory chips and hard drives. Those ones and zeros won’t drive you to where you need to be, doesn’t diagnose patients, and cannot save lives. Instead, data is a lot like an ambulance; it is a strategic asset which helps you (or a robot) do any of those things. Data is used to show the best way to get to a location; it is used to identify possible diagnoses; it is used in countless interventions that prevent death.

Yet these digital resources are often taken for granted.
— Laura Adler

We need Chief Data Officers (CDOs) to do for data what fleet managers do for ambulances. CDOs might not like being called the fleet managers of government data; many of them do much more. However, ensuring their government’s valuable data gets the same care as any other strategic asset is a critical part of their work. Jane Wiseman’s Lessons from Leading CDOs explores what new data-as-strategic-asset managers in governments should be considering, especially in terms of positioning with the organization and necessary executive support.