Geek Sublime: Obama hires a desi to head US data darbar

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Washington,feb.22 : Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other hunter whips out his phone and calls emergency services. My friend is dead! What can I do he gasps. The operator says, Stay calm, sir. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead. There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the hunter says, OK, now what?

It was in 2002 that this joke – submitted by Manchester psychiatrist Gurpal Gosall – was voted the funniest clean joke of all time in an exercise involving some 1.5 million ratings of 40,000 jokes. It was one of the first instances of big data crunching in a decidedly humorous sphere.

Since then, Big Data, a broad term for large and complex sets of information, has become serious business. Governments, big corporations, industries, universities etc., use big data analytics to spot business trends, stop diseases, predict weather, combat crime, and zero in on terrorist modules.

In fact, the government is among the last to embrace the concept of big data, which is growing at the rate of knots – or exabytes in Big Data terminology (an Exabyte is one billion Gigabytes (GB) or one quintillion (10 raised to 18) bytes), even as it is being milked extensively by private corporations. Although big data has long being crunched quietly by outfits ranging from Nasa to NSA for scientific and military-defense output, it is in the social sector that governments are looking to ramp up its use to serve people better.

Last week, the Obama administration took a big step in this direction by naming Indian-American Dhanurjay (“DJ”) Patil as its first Chief Data Scientist and Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy. The appointment marked yet another top sci-tech job in the U.S government that has gone to a person of Indian-origin: Obama appointed Aneesh Chopra as the US government’s first chief technology officer in 2009, when he also named Vivek Kundra as the Chief Information Office (CIO). Another Indian-American, Arati Prabhakar, who also headed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) earlier, is now the director of DARPA, the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that develops military technology (computer networking and hypertext among other internet-related things were developed by DARPA as part of the US defense program).

Patil is a chip off the old block. His father, Suhas Patil, an IIT-Kharagpur and MIT alumnus, co-founded Cirrus Logic, a fabless semiconductor company in 1984, couple of years after he founded Patil Systems, one of the earliest Indian-owned tech companies in the US (a contemporary was Tandon Magnetics by Jugi Tandon, who invented the double-sided floppy drive). The young Patil earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of California, San Diego, and then came to the Washington DC area, where he took a PhD in applied mathematics from University of Maryland in College Park.

As a doctoral student and faculty member at UMD, he used open datasets published by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to make major improvements in numerical weather forecasting, his first taste of the data-giri, so to say. He also worked at the Department of Defense, where he is said to have bridged computational science and social science data sets to help anticipate and identify emerging threats to the United States.

In the years since, he has worked mainly in the private sector, in such nifty and new-fangled Silicon Valley companies such as Linked-In, Skype, PayPal, eBay etc., all of which use Big Data to advance their “insights” into consumer and customer behavior and preferences.

But there no bigger entity than Uncle Sam, and to the US government, and Washington DC, returns DJ as its top Data Scientist – which he once described in a Harvard Business Review article as the “The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century. Indeed, Data Scientists, a job description that barely existed a decade back, are hot hires right now, appearing in some 36,000 help-wanted ads on LinkedIn, according to one account.

DJ himself wrote a White House blog shortly after his appointment pointing to the transformative uses of data being just around the corner: from precision medicine and other forms of smarter health care delivery to individualized education, to the Internet of Things (which refers to devices like cars or thermostats communicating with each other using embedded sensors linked through wired and wireless networks). And leading the Data Darbar in what is expected to be a Data Raj in times to comes – DJ Patil.

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