IST alumnus helps drive a major city's data during COVID-19

Jessica Hallman
September 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As chief data officer for the City and County of San Francisco, Jason Lally carries the daily responsibility to help each of the city’s approximately 50 departments make the best use of its data.

That responsibility becomes especially critical in the middle of a global pandemic.

In response to COVID-19, Lally and his team support public reporting including a number of dashboards and reports showing data related to different aspects of the pandemic response throughout the city. His team of three works with partners across the city to identify appropriate ways to share sensitive public health data, automate data sharing, and equip people with tools and best practices to leverage that data in the response.

“We’re really focusing on building up the many analysts across the city to make sure that they are equipped to answer any number of questions that arise,” said Lally, who graduated from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology in 2005. “That’s not all that different from what we do in non-COVID times, but maybe just more frantic and constantly changing.”

Lally, who was officially promoted to chief data officer in February, was quickly thrust into building a process to share COVID-19 data internally. Luckily, he and his team had already been working on an internal hub for the exchange of data.

“It’s kind of what we planned anyway, but we just had to do it faster than we had planned,” said Lally. “The thing about a crisis like this is that it really brings things into stark focus.”

He added, “In some ways, it made it a little bit easier to get some things going, because we didn’t have time to consider all the tradeoffs and analyze it to the end of time, and we really had to make decisions. It felt good knowing that we were able to meet that need in that moment of time.”

Pandemic aside, Lally and his team are responsible for helping the city’s departments establish governance and policies to ensure they’re managing data as assets. Additionally, they provide assistance for data sharing, principally through the city’s open data portal, as well as develop analytics strategies and methods to put the data to use.

All of which he was prepared to tackle thanks to his background in the College of IST, and especially the mentorship of Lynette Yarger, associate professor of information sciences and technology.

“Dr. Yarger introduced me to a whole set of disciplines and approaches and thinking about the impact of technology on communities,” said Lally. “And that was 100% formative, as she put me on the path and exposed me to things that led me to getting an urban planning master’s degree and then eventually trying to get my skill sets back to cities.”

His path was further defined during a summer internship experience, during which a fellow coworker had a book on her desk about urban towns in Pennsylvania.

“Through that internship I got exposed to a lot of things, and it was a nice unexpected surprise to do that kind of work,” said Lally. “[I’ve become] really adept at working through problems with limited resources and being scrappy and figuring things out. That internship was actually pretty formative, and I still remember it to this day.”

As part of one of the then-School of IST’s first graduating classes, Lally benefited from all the curriculum and experience had to offer.

“If you really wanted to explore something, you had access to so many people studying different things like law and business and public policy and math, and they were all in one school,” said Lally. “When I was there, people would talk about IST as the liberal arts for technology — this well-rounded education.”

Today, Lally applies that foundation in his current role to make an impact for San Franciscans.

“The best part of my job is feeling like I can actually bring a set of skills to meaningfully meet real problems and do that with some of the best and brightest people who are very passionate and committed public servants,” he concluded. “There’s a magic that happens when you can light a path around technology or data and bring that perspective to somebody who has deep subject matter expertise in an area like public health. And when those things come together and you can move something forward, it’s absolutely one of the best feelings in the world.”

Last Updated September 21, 2020