The U.S. Department of Commerce plans to hire a chief data officer, whose job it will be to make more of the department's data publicly available.
Whoever takes the job will be part of an exclusive club.
The number of people worldwide who hold the title of chief data officer (CDO) is relatively small, and there will likely be no more than 250 of them by the end of the year, according to David Mathison, the founder and CEO of a professional association known as the Chief Digital Officer Club.
But Mathison also makes a point that's easy to miss. There are three roles that involve data management: the chief data officer, who focuses on the back end; the chief digital officer, who is concerned with the front end; and the chief analytics officer, who is concerned with making intelligent use of data.
What these roles have in common is that they are new, having been created in the past decade. Whether they will be around a decade from now remains to be seen.
"Nobody wants another chief sitting around the table," said Peter Aiken, a professor of information systems at Virginia Commonwealth University, and founding director of data consulting firm Data Blueprint, which is partly funded by the university.
Aiken, who has written a book about CDOs -- The Case for the Chief Data Officer (Morgan Kaufmann, 2013) -- sees the CDO as a transitional position, with specific goals to accomplish. One of those goals is to help IT change its views about data.
"IT has tended to look at data as storage," Aiken said. "People need to see it as an asset."
The Commerce Department's decision is noteworthy because Commerce may have more data than any other federal department. Agencies under its umbrella include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Census Bureau, the Patent and Trademark Office and other agencies that collect, study and analyze data.
Commerce Department spokesman Jim Hock said the department is only able to make small amounts of its data publicly available. As a percentage of the total, what's available may be in the single digits, he said.
"The mission is to unlock more of our data for the public good," Hock said.
Once that job is finished, and data management is ingrained in the organization, the need for a specific chief data officer may disappear, Aiken said.
The CDO position, he said, may be similar to another role that was once very important but has since disappeared: the CEO.
No, not the chief executive officer, but the chief electricity officer, which is what CEO commonly stood for at the turn of the last century.
The CEOs of that era were charged with helping businesses move to electric power. "We needed them for about 20 years while we figured out what this electricity stuff was about," Aiken said.
In government, CDOs are senior positions, but many serve under the CIO. The Department of Transportation last month hired its first chief data officer, with an annual salary ranging from $124,995 to $157,100.
The chief digital officer is the fastest-growing position in the field of data management, but Mathison looks specifically at the Commerce Department's high-profile decision to hire a chief data officer as a noteworthy development that will help draw attention to data management.
He said the chief digital officer role may be the most transitional. He has already seen some executives who were chief digital officers in early adopting organizations, such as advertising and media companies, move to CEO and director roles. The chief data officer role, because of its back-end focus, will be around longer, but Mathison didn't rule out Aiken's view that it may ultimately be transitional.