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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.

With human capital, oftentimes we see people just looking at data from their perspective, they collect and update data, but we need to look at it at an enterprise level. And many don't have a culture that places a high value on data and information. We need to instill a culture where data is viewed as an asset.

What was the challenge you faced when you stepped into your current role? When I came into the job, one thing I learned is that we as a department have a lot of data. Big data is not new to us. It's been around a long time in the VA, but we didn't have a customer-centric view of our data. Most of our customers are veterans and family members, but we don't have an information environment that allowed us to see a 360-degree view of veterans we are serving and veterans we aren't serving, i.e., those who aren't applying for VA services. And if we don't have a 360-degree view, it makes it tough to do proper planning and proper budgeting. And it was very tough for us to do good analytics on the veteran population.

Was this a people, culture or technology issue? It's a combination of all of the above. The Veterans Administration was first established 83 years ago, in 1930. The department started with one or two business lines, but eventually Congress and this country added on more services for veterans. So as a result, what we ended up having is an organization with many business lines that are basically stovepiped, so the culture as well as the technology were built and grown from a stovepipe fashion.

It was no one's fault, but what we recognize today is we need to be able to take care of our veterans from a veteran's perspective. When veterans come to the VA, they don't look at us as veterans healthcare or veterans home loans. They look at us as the veterans department. But we don't have the data environment to support that. We don't have that one integrated data environment that allows us to see a veteran as one individual. That's what we're working on with the Customer Data Integration initiative.

How far are you into this initiative? We're about to wrap up the work of our skunk works with recommendations to the senior leaders on what the needs are for the upcoming fiscal year, what pieces we need to start putting the big picture together.

You've talked about the importance of a chief data officer. Do organizations really need a C-level executive to harness the power of their data? Personally, I believe that an organization needs to have a chief data officer as a dedicated role that reports to the highest possible level, either the CEO or the COO. The chief data officer should be someone who knows about the business and the technology.


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