Data science and analytics has frequently been named one of the hottest jobs in recent years, with its own set of popular buzzwords, including artificial intelligence, big data, and machine learning. The U.S. government has long been a leading source of data on the country’s people and economy, but what does working in data science in government actually look like?
Meredith Brown is a U.S. Digital Corps Fellow at the General Services Administration (GSA) on a team supporting the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on a host of data science projects. In this blog post, she reflects on her journey to civic tech and shares her impactful work at OSTP.
What made you want to apply to the U.S. Digital Corps?
When the Digital Corps launched in fall 2021, I was a senior in college looking for my first job. As a computer science and statistics major, I knew that I wanted to work in tech, but I wasn’t excited by the positions I saw in the private sector. As an early-career technologist, I wanted the ability to make a difference right away. I looked into opportunities at non-profits, think tanks, and even political campaigns, but each organization could only offer short-term positions.
When I came across the U.S. Digital Corps, I knew I had found the right thing. This program provides me a path to pursue both my passions for public policy and data science, while focusing on projects that will have a real-world impact. The two-year timeframe allows me to dig deeper into my project and agency, and build deep relationships with my partners.
Further, the track and cohort models of the program drew me in. Joining the workforce after years of school is daunting. With the cohort model, the Digital Corps creates a sense of community among the Fellows who are serving across the federal government. In further identifying us by track, I have a dedicated group of other government data scientists that I can go to with questions, ask to workshop ideas, and lean on for support.
Can you tell us a bit about the project you are currently working on?
Through the Digital Corps, I’m placed at GSA and collaborating closely with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Here, I support the Equitable Federal Funding Interagency Working Group, working closely with the Office of the Chief Data Scientist of the United States. The purpose of the Chief Data Scientist and her team is to responsibly unlock the power of data to benefit all Americans.
Every month, I coordinate data efforts between the White House Infrastructure Implementation Team, federal agencies, state leaders, and other stakeholders to establish transparency into infrastructure spending and to promote access to federal funding for historically under-resourced communities. This involves overseeing reporting calls with agencies, producing internal dashboards, and constructing data products for public use.
White House Infrastructure Implementation Team
Likewise, our office partners with agencies to build capacity for and perform equity assessments. By analyzing outreach efforts, technical assistance, and application data, our team provides policy recommendations to agencies on concrete actions that can be taken to improve outcomes for underserved communities. We also develop tools and lessons learned from these assessments to scale our impact across the federal government.
What does equitable data mean to you?
Equitable data isn’t a product of policy, but rather an essential input into policy formation. The same communities that have experienced the compounding effects of inequality and racism are now further impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. In order to address these issues, we need data to speak to the complex nature of inequity in these communities.
Equitable data is disaggregated data: data broken down by race, gender identity, sexual orientation, rural and urban geography, disability status, veteran status, and other characteristics that tell a fuller picture of a community. This data, aggregated over time, allows for assessment of where policy has failed and where programs could have the most impact.
To me, equitable data also speaks to the individuals working to create data. To pursue equitable data necessitates recruiting diverse talent to work on equitable data throughout the government. This makes me especially thankful for initiatives like the U.S. Digital Corps for bringing in a new generation of diverse technologists to energize our agencies to pursue data and policy that helps the public.
What is one thing that has surprised you in your time in government so far?
I’ve been surprised by just how many people are working thoughtfully, day after day, to make our government technology work for all. From the outside, it is easy to feel jaded by archaic systems that seem to take years to adapt. But from the inside, there are so many people thinking about how to, for example:
- Make websites more accessible for the disabled community
- Translate government documents for non-English speakers
- Use plain language to communicate complex ideas
I’ve found that everyone is eager to support me, whether it be talking about career plans or restaurants I should try. Folks are extremely friendly and supportive, which makes the work that much more enjoyable. As a new member of the workforce, I anticipated being given the smaller tasks, but my team has given me large tasks with real responsibility. Their faith in my skills and willingness to facilitate my development as a leader is encouraging and extremely rewarding.
Was there anything you were nervous about before starting as a Fellow? How has that played out?
I was nervous about the complexities of the bureaucracy and being able to get things done. This is definitely a challenge and something I’ve faced often over the past few months. However, I’ve found that this complexity isn’t heavy but rather energizing. I get out of bed every morning thrilled to get to work on the big issues facing everyone in our country.
Having a career as a technologist in government is a rewarding experience! If you’re interested in joining us, check out the U.S. Digital Corps for early-career opportunities (applications open this fall!). For more mid-senior technologists, visit Join GSA’s Technology Transformation Services.