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VA data guru Dat Tran on turning data into information

Mary K. Pratt | Oct. 22, 2013
This IT leader is working to create an integrated experience to better serve U.S. veterans.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been collecting data for nearly a century. But Dat Tran, the VA's deputy assistant secretary for data governance and analysis, says it's not enough to just collect data. He says the VA needs to transform its data into information that gives decision-makers insights into veterans' needs. Tran is leading the effort to do that, to establish strong data governance and apply predictive analytics so the department can better serve the country's veterans. It's a monumental task, but Tran says it's essential so the government can help its veterans in the most effective, efficient manner possible. Here he discusses the challenges of big data at the VA and elsewhere.

Dat Tran

Favorite tech toy: Samsung tablet

Do you have any outside interests? "Both of my kids are trained in tennis, so I spend all my time [away from work] playing tsennis with them and driving them to tournaments."

What's on your reading list? The Bible, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don't, by Nate Silver, and Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Wheelan

Hometown: "I was born and raised in Vietnam, but I consider my U.S. hometown Columbus, Ohio. That's where my family first settled after the Vietnam War. We were on one of the last helicopters out of the U.S. Embassy [in 1975]. I'm a big Buckeyes fan."

What's the most common problem with big data? We get overwhelmed with it, because we don't really know what we have from an organizational perspective. We have a lot of silos of data, but we don't look at it or understand it. A lot of organizations I've dealt with, the data we capture and use is for operational purposes, but we don't look at it from a business-process perspective and understand how to use it for better decision-making. And many organizations aren't organized to have true data governance to manage and govern the data and information they have. When I talk about data governance, I'm talking about how to deal with people, process and technology.

What does good data governance look like? The framework for good data governance must address four critical domains: infrastructure, knowledge process, human capital and the fourth, the most important, is the culture. We need to have the infrastructure in place, the software, the hardware, the network. And databases need to be streamlined to eliminate redundancy and enable us to have a single version of the truth. The knowledge process: We basically need to shift from an operational focus to a more analytic focus, not only to report what has happened and what's currently happening but to use what we know to apply predictive analytics to understand what will be happening in the future.


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