Chief Data Officers: Giving Context to the Language of Data

Chief Data Officers: Giving Context to the Language of Data

With data becoming increasingly important to people in many roles, the Chief Data Officer (CDO) has become an exciting new position replicating quickly throughout higher education.

The CDO is tasked with empowering institutions by providing key insights and critical context that help make sense of vast data information at a college or university.AdobeStock_165933808_CDO.jpg

In this episode of The Higher Edge podcast, Olivia Kew-Fickus, Chief Data Officer and Executive Director of Data & Strategic Analytics at Vanderbilt University shares how her experience working with different cultures has helped her advance the strategic use of data within her institution.

Founded in 1873, Vanderbilt University is an independent private-supported institution located in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee.

What you may not know is that so many of the vaccines that have been so critical to protecting all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic all have had their roots in research conducted at Vanderbilt University since the 1990s.

How Olivia Kew-Fickus Became Vanderbilt’s First CDO

Born in the United Kingdom, then moving to the United States when she was three, and then to Tennessee when she was 12, Kew-Fickus had already experienced many different cultures growing up. 

These experiences gave Kew-Fickus an interest in international studies and languages that she would take with her in all her future endeavors. 

“Whether it's a translation from one language to another or from a kind of one point of view to another, I think that really helps inform what I do as CDO daily,” said Kew-Fickus.

After graduating with a history degree from Princeton University, Kew-Fickus spent a lot of time overseas in Russia and Spain learning their language, history, and culture. Shortly after graduating, Kew-Fickus spent a year living in Ukraine studying the culture and language there. 

Kew-Fickus lived in Ukraine during the mid nineteen nineties. During this time the US was spending a lot in the former Soviet Union to support democracy development.  

“As an American who spoke Ukrainian and Russian, I found that it was really easy for me to get into international development work. And I ended up getting a job on a project that was supporting the local government in Ukraine,” said Kew-Fickus.

After a while of working in Ukraine, Kew-Fickus transitioned to a role based back in the United States running international training programs in Los Angeles. After a number of years training, Kew-Fickus found a job working in international development at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Later, Kew-Fickus graduated from the University of Leicester with a Master's in Business Administration. 

Transitioning into research general administration as opportunities arose, she found herself as the Director of Strategic Planning at the School of Education. 

While Kew-Fickus was Director of Strategic Planning she said, “I always came at that data from a strategy perspective, but I felt that I wanted to move more and more in that direction of data.”

After experiencing a newfound interest in data, Kew-Fickus found an opportunity to become the new Chief Data Officer at Vanderbilt University allowing her to work directly with data.

Carving the Role of CDO from a Blank Slate

The Chief Data Officer is a relatively new position in higher education put in place to help manage and utilize an institution's data. 

“It turns out that managing data at that scale is kind of hard, so that has created an opportunity for those of us in the data field to grow our influence,” Kew-Fickus said. And, as the first CDO at Vanderbilt University, Kew-Fickus has been able to design the role in her own way. 

“[The role] looks like whatever I want it to look like. And with the Chief Data Officer being so new, you do get this chance to have that blank slate.”

Kew-Fickus considers data to be fundamentally “cross-cutting”. It has to be contextualized. Data isn't just about technology, it's also about the business use case, the process to create that data, the skills that people have, and the ethics behind using or collecting data. 

“I was listening to a podcast recently and I'm paraphrasing, but what she said was that all data is wrong the first time that it's put out there, and that's because it always has to be put into context,” says Kew-Fickus. “You have to understand the context of the data, the context of the question that's being asked.”

Finally, a CDO's role is to keep in mind data ethics when working with an institution's data. Kew-Fickus shares that these questions revolving around data ethics were some of the hardest she's faced. 
“There are questions about privacy, and there are questions about access, there are questions about usage,” said Kew-Fickus. “One of the things I'm trying to do right now is to put in place some of those decision trees and guidelines and sets of questions so that we have a way to think through those ethical issues.”

How Studies in Languages and Liberal Arts Help with Understanding Data

Many people may think that Chief Data Officer is a pure technology role because “data” is in its title. But while a CDO needs to have an appreciation for technology, Kew-Fickus tells us that her background in languages and liberal arts brings a vital perspective to the role that creates opportunities for success. 

“I draw on those skills of my ability to code switch, whether its translation from one language to another or from one viewpoint to another. I think it helps inform what I do as CDO,” said Kew-Fickus. “Learning how to do that has been helpful to me as I try to do this translation back and forth between different tribes within the university administration.”

Kew-Fickus uses her strategic background in language, liberal arts, and technology to help her peers understand data to be better suited to work with the institution's data. 

“I believe that CDOs are successful when they are able to help people in their organizations to do that work of putting it into context,” said Kew-Fickus. 

Kew-Fickus makes sure people interact with data to get more familiarized with it, and she helps them frame the questions about data: 

  • Where did this data come from? 
  • What does this data tell us, and what does it not tell us? 
  • How does this data get into the system in the first place?
  • What process put it there? 

All of these questions better help her peers and colleagues better understand their data and what goes into collecting, processing, and utilizing their institutions' data. 

“I have found Vanderbilt to be one of the most optimistic places that I've ever worked,” said Kew-Fickus. “There is this attitude of ‘If we can conceive of it, if we can dream of it for ourselves, then we can figure out a way to do it.’”

The Higher Edge

To learn more about Olivia Kew-Fickus and the work she does as Chief Data Officer at Vanderbilt University, check out the full interview on The Higher Edge Podcast.

Also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and our website.