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Obama appoints Silicon Valley veteran as first chief data scientist

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The United States government has its first chief data scientist. DJ Patil, a veteran of tech and internet companies Skype, PayPal, eBay, and LinkedIn, was appointed to the role by President Obama this week. Behind his lengthy full title — Chief Data Scientist and Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy — is a job that will see Patil trying to find ways to better use data across all segments of the government, with a focus on health care.

Patil was instrumental in inventing and codifying the practice of data science, spending 20 years helping companies and organizations measure data, and calling out data scientist as "the sexiest job of the 21st century" in a much-publicized paper in the Harvard Business Review. This isn't the first time Patil's worked for the government — he previously advised the Department of Defense on how to use social network analysis to spot growing threats to national security.

Patil famously called his job "the sexiest of the 21st century."

In a blog post announcing the new appointment, current White House CTO Megan Smith said that Patil would "help shape policies and practices to help the US remain a leader in technology and innovation" and assist in fostering partnerships with other organizations to "responsibly maximize the nation's return on its investment in data." Smith said Patil was also tasked with helping recruit other data scientists to help the government's cause.

Patil's appointment comes as the Democratic administration focuses hiring efforts on Silicon Valley. Todd Park, the government's former chief technology officer, moved west late last year to oversee a new recruitment drive in northern California designed to get people with tech backgrounds into government jobs. The initiative seems to be paying off: in addition to Patil, Obama appointed former VMWare executive Tony Scott to the role of chief information officer earlier this month.

The Obama administration has suffered from an inability to attract top tech talent to Washington, a problem epitomized by the botched launch of Healthcare.gov. Patil's appointment, his focus on health care, and the ongoing Silicon Valley recruitment drive show that the US government is now succeeding in tempting some of technology's bigger names, helping to avoid making the same mistake again.