Chief information officers can learn many lessons from the coronavirus pandemic when it comes to managing data, according to DJ Patil, a former U.S. chief data scientist, including the need to prepare for constant change and broadening who counts as data stakeholders.

Speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Network virtual event Wednesday, Mr. Patil said he took a leave from his job as head of technology at Devoted Health Inc. to help the state of California manage its Covid-19 response this spring. The resulting experience should not be unfamiliar to CIOs, some of whom are developing their own pandemic-related analytics tools for functions such as office reopenings.

Among the many challenges for Covid-19 researchers: Tracking data spread across various locations and an ever-evolving understanding of the disease itself, partly due to epidemiological modeling based on other diseases.

Mr. Patil, who was a volunteer, helped solve the first challenge by recommending the state compile information about data sets in a spreadsheet. But correcting and adjusting to a constant flow of data required a more agile approach, and CIOs likewise need to prepare for data types and sources that are likely to evolve, he said.

“Just know that the data that you’re collecting today is going to rapidly change over the next few weeks to months,” he said. “So prepare your data systems, prepare your way you think about this to evolve very regularly. Don’t be afraid to throw away the structural design that you have now and replace it because it’s just not going to be able to keep up.”

When working on projects that use raw data, CIOs should be cognizant of the different stories data can help tell, he said. For example, “[Are we] trying to understand it for public health reasons? Or are we trying to understand it for economic reasons?” Mr. Patil said.

Helping tackle the Covid-19 data challenge for California reaffirmed for Mr. Patil the importance of broadening the definition of data stakeholder, and that applies for any organization, he said.

Historically, team members from sales, engineering or design might be at the table. But companies should think in broader terms because one of the benefits of bringing in other staff is that it introduces ideas about new data streams that can help solve a problem, Mr. Patil said.

“Finding a way to see what’s there and how they’re thinking about it, you have to make your team structure bigger so that you can actually get disproportionate input,” he said.

Mr. Patil said CIOs should also be mindful that some of the data they encounter may have more privacy implications than other data. “Some of this data is personal health information. How do we think about making sure it’s safe and secure and it doesn’t get…put with other data sets that we’re not comfortable with?” he said.

Mr. Patil became the first U.S. chief data scientist in 2015. He was responsible for establishing nearly 40 chief data officer roles across the federal government, and was involved in efforts related to health care, criminal justice and national security, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Write to Jared Council at [email protected]

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