Chief Data Scientist – and Puzzle Solver – Justin Ronca

Since joining FSIS in March 2020, Chief Data Scientist (CDS) Justin Ronca has enjoyed solving puzzles related to FSIS’s use of technology and data. As CDS with the Office of Planning, Analysis and Risk Management (OPARM), Ronca automates decision tools, predicts future needs and ensures the agency uses the best data analytics , statistics, computer science and scientific methods to extract value from data and solve agency problems.

FSIS has created its first Assistant Director of Data (ACDO) position as part of USDA’s efforts to implement the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policy Making Act 2018. The law requires agencies to designate a senior employee to coordinate evidence collection activities and an official with statistical expertise to advise on statistical policy, techniques, and procedures. Ronca was hired to take on both the roles of CDS and ACDO, which also meet the requirements of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

CDS and ACDO roles

As CDS, Ronca coordinates and manages data science and machine learning (how we machine learn to make decisions) to support the agency’s top business priorities. ACDO’s role is to manage “our data business,” which includes data governance and data quality and availability.

The CDS and ACDO positions are distinct but complementary – the former tends to be more technical while the latter tends to be more business oriented. Ronca said, “Over the past two and a half years I have fulfilled both roles which has facilitated the alignment between CDS and ACDO. Until recently, my primary focus was establishing the ACDO position, its responsibilities and processes, and developing a working relationship with the Chief Data Officer and the USDA team. Highlights of the first two years include establishing the agency’s Data Governance and Stewardship Committee (DGSC) under the FSIS Steering Committee, helping to reorganize parts of the OPARM to provide functional support to DGSC and ACDO and oversight of a multi-year undertaking. data quality assessment. I also spent a lot of time socializing enterprise data governance and its connection to data quality among staff and executives.

In fiscal year 2023, an OPARM Director is expected to take over as FSIS’s permanent ACDO. As Ronca’s ACDO responsibilities began to shift to the new ACDO, he had more opportunities to focus on the role of the CDS, which – until now – has included creating models that support the Office of Field Operations (OFO) staffing challenges by predicting turnover among field staff and developing ways to more effectively allocate audit samples. Ronca’s work becomes more technical as he turns more exclusively to his role as CDS.

Ronca’s recent successes as a CDS include the FSIS data pipeline, which is expected to be completed by the end of FY23. The goal of the innovative pipeline project is to create authoritative master datasets and organized for use across the agency to support everything from scientific study and policy development to field operations. The pipeline produces and manages key data files to support a number of OFO requests for field-focused dashboards and other reports. It is also designed to automate and optimize processes such as responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and facilitating more streamlined public data releases. These releases make sample data, non-compliance records, and other data publicly available on our website, preempting many FOIA requests. Read more.

“Pathway” from undergraduate degree to current position

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at American University, Ronca landed an internship as a Mathematical Statistician with the USDA’s US Forest Service, a position made available through the USDA Pathways program. . Ronca said, “I thought the work was interesting and I appreciated that one could make a career out of solving puzzles with math, so I pursued a graduate degree in mathematical statistics. After earning her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ronca held several senior data science positions in the private sector before returning to USDA in 2020.

Licensed for Success

Of FSIS’s four core values ​​– accountable, collaborative, empowered, and solution-focused – Ronca believes empowerment is key to the agency’s success. “By empowering the staff, I think you get the other three. If you empower people to make mistakes and learn from them, you get more engaged staff and better solutions. You also get staff more willing to admit that they may not know how best to approach an issue; this comfort with its opportunities to learn contributes greatly to fostering collaboration. Of course, if you give someone the power to do something, that means they have to take ownership of the outcome – to be responsible for it,” Ronca said.

Ronca’s supervisor, OPARM Deputy Administrator Janet Stevens said, “Justin is always full of energy and curiosity, no matter the topic or time of day. He always asks why or why not. He was instrumental in ensuring that we seek to understand the real business need or scientific question that needs to be answered while challenging us to think about all the ways we can successfully achieve the goal and not just to look at challenges the same way we did. before.”

What the future holds for Ronca

As ACDO and the agency’s first CDS, Ronca helped launch many successful initiatives and solve important public health issues. He believes these initiatives have the potential to bring significant value to FSIS, and he hopes to see where they take the agency in the next five years.

When he’s not solving puzzles for FSIS, Ronca enjoys scuba diving in warm waters teeming with exotic creatures and coral reefs. One of his favorite scuba diving spots off the Hawaiian Islands is where he first experienced cave diving. In the future, he plans to go scuba diving off the coasts of Greece and the Middle East.

Justin Ronca is Chief Data Scientist in the Office of Planning, Analysis and Risk Management. Photo by USDA.

Sean N. Ayres