By: Sean Robinson, Program Chair, Predictive Analytics World for Government

In anticipation of his upcoming conference keynote presentation, 21st Century Data-Driven Environmental Protection at Predictive Analytics World for Government, October 17-20, 2016, we asked Robin Thottungal, Chief Data Scientist/Director of robin-thottungalAnalytics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a few questions about his work in predictive analytics.

Q: How would you characterize your agency's current and/or planned use of predictive analytics?  What is one specific way in which predictive analytics actively drives decisions in your agency?

A: Every day, EPA tackles enormous challenges to protect human health and the environment. And now we realize that strategy alone is no longer adequate to address the diverse circumstances that we face in America, such as our changing climate or the risk of chemical explosions. We want to do better.

We are learning that, while technology cannot replace strategy, strategy needs to work hand in hand with a data-driven approach. So we are putting our data to work, using technology to better serve the American people.

One of our plans is to employ predictive analytics to prevent catastrophes and to reduce response times downstream. For example, could real-time monitors at underground storage tanks prevent a chemical spill?

Q: Can you describe the challenges you face or have already overcome in establishing a data-driven environment in your agency?

A: Leaders at the EPA are routinely faced with challenging situations. My question is: how do you create a culture within leadership where decisions are backed by data? One of my goals is to inspire our leadership to make data a critical part of their decision making process. I want them to instinctively ask about the data behind all proposals.

Q: Can you discuss any near term goals you have for improving your agency's use of predictive analytics?

A: We are connecting our vision with our values so that all of our activities align with our mission. And this is possible by following a simple recipe: 1) develop tech-talent within EPA staff; 2) invest in the right technology that works on large volume datasets; and 3) adjust our processes to support predictive analytics.

We took inspiration from tech start-ups. If you mix talent with technology without defining a clear path forward, the right processes evolve naturally. Over time, we will become capable of asking questions that we cannot even think to ask today.

Q: Can you describe a successful result from the employment of predictive analytics in your agency?

A: Across the board, data is driving decisions at EPA. As a result, we are seeing serious improvements in our operational efficiency. This is very exciting because we are not in the business of tackling one specific problem; among other things, we regulate air emissions, we monitor water quality, we fund innovation, and we set standards on chemicals to protect the health of all Americans.

By engraining the spirit of predictive analytics across the enterprise, it seems like everything is changing at the same time. From improved administrative processes to an informed Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force, efficiencies abound.

Q: Sneak preview: Please tell us a take-away that you will provide during your talk at Predictive Analytics World for Government.

A: You can use bureaucracy to your advantage if you take a different approach. By thinking like a start-up, my team has been successful at disrupting the typical way of doing business in EPA. We experiment, select the best minimum viable products, scale them up and iterate.


Don't miss Robin’s conference presentation, 21st Century Data-Driven Environmental Protection  on Monday, October 17, 2016 from 9:15 to 10:00 am, at Predictive Analytics World for Government. Click here to register to attend. 

By: Sean Robinson, Program Chair, Predictive Analytics World for Government