Data Detective Uncovers the Story Hidden Within Data

July 2020
Bonnie O'Neil
MITRE Employee Bonnie O'Neil

All data has a backstory. Bonnie O'Neil's passion is finding it.

An expert in data cataloging—organizing, defining, and curating massive amounts of information—O'Neil helps federal agencies figure out the story their data tells. Then she determines the gaps that exist and what they need to know to support their missions.

"At its root, data is abstract—it describes something," she says. "I look at its contours and where it came from, where it's been, and how to make it better."

O’Neil emphasizes that she's not a data scientist or statistician. Her background is in metadata, quality, architecture, modeling, ontologies, and taxonomies. Call it the "data behind the data."

With 30 years in the field—as an independent consultant, author, speaker, developer of business rules ("if/then"), and data profiling pioneer—O'Neil has contributed to data management's evolution by facilitating technology adoption. This includes data catalogs, which use machine learning (ML) algorithms that make them much easier to use.

ML automates, connects, integrates, and analyzes data more quickly and accurately than earlier processes ever could, she says. She sees the data cataloging-ML combination as a perfect marriage.

Why is good data so important?

"Data runs a company," she says. "A standardized set of codes is hugely helpful to sharing information. And meaningful metrics are critical to any organization."

ML-powered searches give analysts back the "time spent searching for potentially valuable data sets."

Detecting Good Data Comes Naturally

O'Neil is a self-described data sleuth and "data management Swiss Army Knife."

"I love the challenge of figuring out what the data means," she says. "I peel the onion back and ask more and more questions to find out the story the data's telling. It's fascinating!"

Her recent book, The Data Catalog, co-authored with Lowell Fryman (Technics Publications, 2020), has a fitting subtitle: Sherlock Holmes Data Sleuthing for Analytics. The book, her fourth, provides an overview of the latest ML-augmented data catalog products to "empower your data citizens in their quest for faster time to insight."

The Data Catalog is timely, as the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (also known as the Evidence Act) requires all federal agencies to establish data inventories to provide the information that underpins their decision-making.

"Through MITRE's collaboration with federal chief data officers and other government officials, we've developed repeatable and completely customizable processes," she says. "And we've identified best practices for capturing and curating data."

Trusting the Process

O'Neil is currently collaborating with the human resources team at a federal agency.

"My sponsor is very receptive and understands the importance of data to the hiring process and retaining employees. I'm helping them identify use cases, and I've designed two methodologies: how to acquire a data catalog and how to implement a data catalog."

She knows that not everyone shares her excitement about all things data, however.

"To most people, data management is a little like a cough syrup that tastes awful. You hold your nose and take it to get better," she says. "It takes time but it's worth the investment. Data management adds tremendous value to data, empowering the business to get its job done."

She appreciates that she gets to work side by side with "really smart people" and likes being able to reach back to her MITRE colleagues to share ideas and methodologies.

"MITRE is a trusted adviser, and that's another reason that keeps me here," she says. "I want to advise and guide my sponsors as they build and maintain their data inventories. We walk the path together."

A Perfect Match

After a stint selling copiers out of college, she was bored and went back to school. Her degree in computer science sparked her love of data.

She was a consultant for many years based in Denver. "I traveled and spoke all over the world. I mainly presented on business rules and data quality. I love helping people see behind the data—and improve its quality and value."

O'Neil and her husband relocated to the Washington, D.C., area in 2011. She joined MITRE in 2016 and found the perfect fit for her background and expertise.

 "I'm surrounded by people like me who understand the importance of data. We're appreciated by the company and our sponsors. It's like I died and went to heaven."

—by Karina Wright

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