Faculty Spotlight

MDI Faculty Spotlight: Professor Amy O’Hara

Written by Paige Kupas, MDI Journalism Intern 

Professor Amy O’Hara is a data governance expert committed to improving access to data for public institutions and the people they serve. Now, after five years at the Massive Data Institute (MDI) as the Executive Director of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center and a Research Professor, O’Hara continues to design and build data governance structures that will impact public policy today and in the future.

O’Hara began her career in the federal government but shifted her focus toward other institutions and entities when her former colleague at the U.S. Census Bureau Georgetown University Provost Robert Groves encouraged her to transition to the McCourt School. 

“In the government, I had done data sharing with a lot of federal entities, but state agencies, nonprofits, and local governments were just out of the question,” O’Hara said. “I left the federal government to be able to focus more on these groups that were not really getting a seat at the table and to help them build capacity to use their data, which often involves setting up data governance.”

At Georgetown, O’Hara strives to help organizations strike a balance between data privacy and security and the safe use of data to improve public policy because “a lot of people think that the safest thing to do with data is to destroy it or not let anyone use it, but then you’re missing a lot of the policy relevant answers that are hidden in the data.” 

While O’Hara has published work on topics ranging from big data, to U.S. Census analysis, to research about family income, her recent project that she is most excited about aims to establish a secure query service for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that will enable government agencies, program managers, and nonprofits to understand outcomes of the people participating in their respective programs. O’Hara envisions the query service will help officials understand outcomes from groups of participants, such as people in a human services program or people obtaining credentials from a certain degree program. 

The project is collaborative between O’Hara, MDI scholars, fellows, research assistants, Yale University, and the IRS to create statistics without compromising the individual data of the query service participants. 

“It’s interesting to pull from the experiences that all of these different partners have and then introduce the students who are involved with the project to these people so they now have a wider network, too,” O’Hara explained, excited to have MDI scholars and fellows involved in the project.

As the field of data governance rapidly changes and advances, legislation could either harm or help the ways in which data are shared. For instance, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act requires that federal agency data be accessible — but guidelines about how the presumption of accessibility should be interpreted could either lead to breaking down barriers, thus allowing data to be used safely, or cracking down on data collection and use. Both scenarios have impacts on public policy, according to O’Hara.

“I’m a big proponent of using data as long as it isn’t improperly used for enforcement, or for surveillance, or for marketing. I think that there are exciting things in terms of guidance and regulation that will help improve access to data, but at the same time, there are these headwinds of discussions about what should be captured and how the data should be used,” O’Hara said. 

Still, O’Hara remains optimistic about the field of data governance because she has seen immense progress and innovation during her career. She is confident that there is much more to come, too. 

“There are some fields and disciplines where you are working on projects where you might not see that sort of change within your lifetime,” O’Hara said. “Here, you can see the changes in technology and the needs of society are the things that are often driving greater use of data.”