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Data Stewards Academy

Testimonials and Lessons Learned from a First-of-Its-Kind Data Stewardship Executive Education Course

Posted on 23rd of April 2021 by Andrew Young, Fiona Cece, Stefaan Verhulst

Testimonials and Lessons Learned from a First-of-Its-Kind Data Stewardship Executive Education Course
Testimonials and Lessons Learned from a First-of-Its-Kind Data Stewardship Executive Education Course
Access the course syllabus here

In late 2020, The GovLab’s Open Data Policy Lab initiative, supported by Microsoft, announced the start of a new Data Stewards Academy training initiative. The Data Stewards Academy trains responsible data leaders across sectors to initiate systematic, sustainable, and responsible re-use of data to create public value and solve public problems. Last month we concluded the first of these trainings: The 8-week Data Stewardship Executive Education Course, which provided mentorship to a small group of leaders interested in developing a data reuse strategy for solving public problems.  

During an open application period, we received over 100 applications from highly qualified data experts and decision-makers interested in joining the first cohort. The GovLab team reviewed these applications with an eye toward selecting diverse individuals working across a regions and contexts. The 20 individuals selected for the first cohort play leadership roles in national statistical offices; state and local government; international humanitarian and development organizations; multinational corporations; industry accelerators; startups; non-governmental organizations; foundations; and academic research centers.

The course was designed and delivered by program leads Stefaan G. Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer at The GovLab, and Andrew Young, The GovLab’s knowledge director. The course benefitted from the essential support and wisdom of a similarly diverse cohort of guest faculty who delivered lectures and hosted remote ‘field visits’ to share with participants how they approach data stewardship where they work. 

Upon completion of the 8-week course, The GovLab disseminated a brief survey to both course participants and guest faculty members to learn from their experience and advance our understanding of how to deliver effective, actionable training that can help data stewards unlock the public value of data they hold. 

In the below we highlight a few notable, representative reflections from the participants and guest faculty that will inform future Data Stewards Academy training offerings and could be relevant for others seeking to support new ways of leveraging data and collaboration in the public interest. 

Reflections on Data Stewardship Training from Participants and Guest Faculty

Data Stewardship is an emerging profession and set of roles and responsibilities. Many participants found value in the course as a means for clarifying how their work is part of a “new field” aimed at advancing systematic, sustainable, and responsible data reuse.

Several participants indicated that engagement with their peers, including through the Data Stewards Academy Alumni Network, provided significant value: 

  • “What an honor to stand in the presence of such brilliant and thoughtful colleagues. It was so refreshing to be around people who were thinking about data strategy and to hear the things they were thinking. [Peer] presentations helped me feel as if I wasn't alone in my wanderings, and validated that my wanderings were 100% appropriate. Like there was not some ‘train’ I had missed, and I was sitting back at the station while everyone else was well on their way to their destination.” -- Kristin Medlin, Director of Research, Collaboratory & HandsOn Connect Cloud Solutions
  • “[T]he new network created among participants gave a very good opportunity to discuss our respective programmes and look for solutions. I have been in contact with a few guests and participants since the beginning of the course to discuss how to enhance [my institution’s] programmes.” -- Eugenia Olliaro, Program Officer, Responsible Data for Children, UNICEF

Other participants were particularly struck by the broad swath of experience and expertise brought to the table by the global guest faculty:  

  • “This course was an incredible opportunity to learn from experienced peers, receive mentorship from academic and industry experts, and set strategy for a post-pandemic world, where public institutions need to set priorities with data and answer questions with data. It has been an honor to be a part of this inaugural cohort of Data Stewards, and I look forward to contribute to our growing community!” -- Christine Keung, Chief Data Officer, Mayor’s Office on Technology and Innovation, City of San Jose
  • “I highly recommend the Data Stewardship Executive Education course. The lectures, the speakers and the visits to different Data Offices were exceptionally well curated. It is also a great opportunity for networking and discussing with peer about problems and challenges that all Data Stewards face in our daily work.” -- Juliana Outes Velarde, Data Steward, Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab), Oxford University

Some participants indicated it was indeed the combination of these different elements, in a multi-faceted learning package that surfaced actionable strategies and pathways to impact:

  • “In eight short weeks, I saw data stewardship in action like never before. The combination of lectures on data stewardship framework, virtual site visits and guest lectures from practitioners across the globe and spectrum of industries served to center my resolve in my own work. The participant cohort was incredible, both in their accomplishments and their aspirations and their active participation enhanced the overall program. The read-ahead materials for each week were a goldmine of actionable resources. Every single class I took away one or more items that were put into play right away. I’ll be re-taking many segments of the class to strengthen my understanding.” -- Jaime Lees, Chief Data Officer, Arlington County Government    
  • “The Data Stewardship Course is extremely fascinating for it provides a great amount of valuable information and methods that are readily applicable. The course is rich in content and perspectives and is definitely a must-do to anyone looking to work with data with excellence.” -- Otávio Neves, Director for Transparency and Civic Engagement for Government Oversight at the Brazilian Office of the Comptroller General

Guest faculty members also highlighted the richness of the learning offerings, and especially the “calibre of the cohort's thinking and engagement”: 

  • “Its always heartening to meet a fresh group of people from different sectors and backgrounds that all have a common interest in learning more and developing themselves and, by result, their organisations.” -- Alex Hutchison, Director, Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF
  • “During the Centre for Humanitarian Data's session for the Data Stewardship Course we had a lively conversation with an engaged audience of professionals with a wide variety of backgrounds. The cohort quickly grasped the core of the Centre's activities and was able to relate this to their own work, leading to some immediate lessons including in relation to the development of Data Sensitivity Classifications, the importance of trust in the data ecosystem and the benefits of open data sharing.” -- Jos Berens, Data Policy Officer, UN OCHA Centre for Humanitarian Data

Going forward, guest faculty and participants alike made clear that more trainings like the Data Stewards Academy will be essential for creating the human infrastructure and institutional change necessary to unlock the public value of the data era: 

  • “The GovLab programme aligns with the UN's vision for 'connected data ecosystems' that can drive better decisions and support on critical priorities for 'people and planet'. It's an invaluable resource for strengthening the data capabilities of public sector leaders.” -- Kersten Jauer, Senior Planning Officer, Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General
  • “Data sharing to solve our large societal problems is still in its infancy. Courses like this are very necessary to convey the opportunities and challenges to make it happen at scale.” -- Richard Benjamins, Chief AI and Data Strategist, Telefonica


The course syllabus is openly accessible here, and interested individuals can subscribe to The GovLab’s weekly Data Stewards Newsletter at this link, and sign up to be alerted to future Data Stewards Academy course offerings here.

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