University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: CDO

Why have a CDO?

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a group of IT professionals about the role of a Chief Data Officer.  Having the chance to speak publically to a variety of audiences is one of the best facets to my job at UW-Madison because I meet new people and hear about their experiences.  Each time I’m out speaking I learn just as much as I hope the audience is learning from me.

One of the questions posed to me at this particular event was “Why should an organization have a Chief Data Officer?”  Great question!  To answer, I posed a number of questions back to the audience (don’t you love it when you ask a question and get asked back a question in response?)  The questions / responses went like this:

Q:  How many people in the audience believe their data are corporate / organizational assets?
R: Everyone’s hand went up.

Q: How many people in the audience think their organizations treat data as corporate assets?
R: Quite a few hands went down.

Q: What are some other corporate / organizational assets at the organizations represented by the audience?
R: Computers / Equipment (of course, it was a group of IT people), people, money.

Q: So let’s look at people and money.  How many people work in organizations that have an executive that manages HR – a VP of HR or Chief Human Resource Officer?
R:  Everyone’s hand went up

Q:  How many people work in an organization that have a CFO or VP of Finance?
R: Everyone’s hand stayed up

Q: How many people think technology is necessary to manage people or money?
R: Everyone’s hand stayed up

Q: How many people work in an organization where HR and/or Finance report into IT?
R: Everyone’s hand went down.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I believe an organization should have a Chief Data Officer.  If we truly believe data are institutional assets, then there should be a role within the organization to manage those assets.  Certainly technology is necessary to efficiently manage data.  But, the effective management of data is not a function of technology.  It is a function of the people who steward the data.  Those who steward the data should demand the requirement that the management of data is done efficiently and not haphazardly.  And then IT professionals can implement tools and/or solutions that meet that requirement.

Do I think those of us at UW-Madison treat our data as institutional assets?  In pockets across campus yes I do.  But there’s still a way to go for the notion of managing our data as assets to become part of our culture and method of operations.  I think we are moving in the right direction – and look forward to continuing conversations and advancing that notion.

A Culture of Information Literacy

Last week, I had the tremendous opportunity to speak at CDOVision, an executive track of the Enterprise Data World conference.  Topics at the conference ranged from data management strategies to data quality to monetizing data to organizational culture around data.  CDOs from government, the financial sector, tech sector and even the military presented.  I learned quite a bit from the experiences of others and hopefully am bringing back ideas that will help us at UW-Madison continue down our path using data more efficiently to make better decisions.

Associate Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management — Steve Hahn, who is one of the Data Governance Steering Team members, articulated well a principle that we should try to adhere to within our Data Governance Program.  During my presentation at CDOVision, I spoke to this principle:  we should not concern ourselves with ownership of data.  I believe this question (debate) is unproductive and unwinnable.  It doesn’t matter who ‘owns’ or doesn’t ‘own’ a particular data set.  What does matter is how we collectively ‘curate’ or ‘steward’ that data.  Much like the curator of an art museum curates the works that are contained within the museum.  The curator doesn’t own the paintings.  However, the curator decides who gets access to which pieces of art work, how they get access to that art, for how long, what information is also presented along with the art work, etc.  With our institutional data at UW-Madison, our Data Stewardship Council is in the process of making the same types of determinations.  Who should have access to different segments of our institutional data?  How do they gain such access?  What information, or meta-data, is available for those segments of data?

Speaking towards stewarding our data in this manner is one step towards building a culture of literacy of our institutional data.  If all of our users understand how data should be curated, what the expectations are of handling data and from where the data comes, we start to mitigate the risk of the data being handled inappropriately and we also mitigate the risk of the data interpreted inconsistently to make ill-advised decisions.  I believe that the conversation around curating data also allows for greater transparency into the Data Governance Process.  Decision rights need to be established as to who or what group make the determination around access to certain data domains.  The process for establishing those decision rights, how they were granted and the policies created from those people or groups helps foster a collaborative and open environment.

This culture of openness and literacy around the information we have available to us at UW-Madison is what I will continue to strive to help foster.  We have a number of initiatives upcoming in the very near future including implementing a risk-based approach to securing our data, building out our Tableau environment and service and implementing a replacement for Interactive Reporting.  All of these initiatives will require that our users on campus have a good understanding of the data with which they interact and the responsibilities that come with interacting with that data.  The next couple of years will prove to be not only exciting for us ‘data geeks’ but also hopefully prove to be years in which we are able to create more efficiency and common understanding of the institutional data we have at our fingertips to help us make decisions.


When I started in this new role for UW-Madison in September of 2014, I was asked “What exactly does a Chief Data Officer do?”  Hmmm.  That is a great question.  According to my job description, I am the person responsible for “designing, creating and maintaining a service able to meet the needs of UW-Madison in creating reliable and useful information within and across organizational units while also maintaining data integrity and security.”   Easy, right!  Today when I’m asked, I tell people I am the campus champion for encouraging responsible data usage and management.  If you interact with data in some fashion — whether it be administrative data, research data or an excel file you keep on your desktop — I’m probably at least somewhat interested in it.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with and speak to many different people across campus from folks in administrative capacities in departments across the different schools to researchers and primary investigators, to faculty and to central administrators.  And in meeting with the people with whom I’ve met, I’ve found that everyone welcomes the opportunity to discuss how effective data management strategies could make our collective lives easier.

We’ve started a Data Governance Program on campus that I believe will be the basis for those effective data management strategies.  I’ve had the good fortune to be able to speak with people on the national stage in higher-ed about Data Governance and I’ve also co-authored a couple of papers on the topic.  And I feel good in saying the scope we are undertaking in our Data Governance Program is second to none across the nation.  And, we’ve established our program in keeping with campus’ Shared Governance beliefs.

Through our Data Governance Program, we have re-defined UW-Madison’s Data Classifications.  By going through this exercise, we now have the basis for providing user training on responsible usage of data as well as the basis for our Office of Cybersecurity to implement a risk based approach to securing our systems.  We have also formally established the group that will be responsible for designing the access control policies for our Tableau environment.

I tell everyone who asks today I have found my dream job.  Working at UW-Madison with all the great people with whom I work, and having the opportunities to collaborate with a wide variety of people in a challenging environment is something I’ve always sought in my career.  After my first 15 months on the job I can say I have found what I’ve been looking for.