ARCHIVE: Chief Data Scientist — and Puzzle Solver — Justin Ronca
This story is an archived copy and may not reflect the most up to date information. Please visit the Employee section of our site for the latest employee information.
Since joining FSIS in March 2020, Chief Data Scientist (CDS) Justin Ronca has enjoyed solving puzzles related to FSIS 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 is using the best data analysis, statistics, computer science and scientific methods to extract value from data and solve agency problems.
FSIS created its first Assistant Chief Data Officer (ACDO) position as part of USDA’s efforts to implement the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. The act requires agencies to designate a senior employee to coordinate evidence-building activities and an official with statistical expertise to advise on statistical policy, techniques and procedures. Ronca was hired to take on both the CDS and ACDO roles which also support 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 teach the machine to make decisions) to support the agency’s major business priorities. The ACDO role involves managing “the business of our data” which includes data governance as well as 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 focused. Said Ronca, “For the last two and a half years, I filled both roles, so that made alignment between the CDS and ACDO rather easy. Until recently, I focused primarily on establishing the ACDO position, its responsibilities and processes and developing a working relationship with USDA’s Chief Data Officer and team. Some of the highlights of the first two years included creating the agency’s Data Governance and Stewardship Committee (DGSC) under the FSIS Enterprise Steering Board, helping to reorganize portions of OPARM to provide functional support for the DGSC and ACDO and overseeing a multi-year enterprise data quality evaluation. I also spent a great deal of time socializing enterprise data governance and its connection with data quality among staff and executives.”
During fiscal year (FY) 2023, an OPARM director is slated to take over as the permanent FSIS ACDO. As Ronca’s ACDO responsibilities have begun transitioning to the new ACDO, he has had more opportunities to focus on the CDS role, which — so far — has included creating models that support the Office of Field Operations’ (OFO) staffing challenges by predicting turnover among field personnel and developing ways to allocate verification samples more efficiently. Ronca’s work is becoming more technical as he shifts more exclusively to his CDS role.
Ronca’s recent successes as CDS include the FSIS data pipeline, which is on schedule to finish by the end of FY23. The purpose of the innovative pipeline project is to create authoritative, curated, master data sets for use across the agency to support anything from scientific study and policy development to field operations. The pipeline produces and maintains key data files to support a number of requests from OFO for field-focused dashboards and other reports. It is also designed to automate and optimize processes like responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and facilitating more streamlined public data postings. These postings make sampling data, noncompliance records and other data available to the public on our website, thus preempting many FOIA requests. Read more.
“Pathways” from Undergraduate Degree to Present Position
After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in math at American University, Ronca landed an internship as a mathematical statistician with USDA’s U.S. Forest Service, a position made available through USDA’s Pathways Program. Said Ronca, “I thought the work was interesting and appreciated that one could make a career out of solving puzzles with math, so I pursued a graduate degree in mathematical statistics.” After completing his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Ronca worked in several senior level data science positions in private industry before returning to USDA in 2020.
Empowered for Success
Of the four FSIS Core Values — Accountable, Collaborative, Empowered and Solutions-Oriented — Ronca believes Empowered is key to the agency’s success. “By empowering staff, I think you get the other three. If you empower folks to make mistakes and to learn from them, you get more engaged staff and better solutions. You also get staff more willing to admit that they might not know how best to approach a problem; this comfort with one’s opportunities to learn goes a long way toward fostering collaboration. Of course, if you empower someone with authority to do something, that means they must own the result — to be accountable for it,” said Ronca.
Ronca’s supervisor, OPARM Assistant Administrator Janet Stevens, shared, “Justin is always full of energy and curiosity, no matter the topic or time of day. He is always asking why or why not. He has been instrumental in ensuring that we seek to understand the true business need or scientific question that needs answering while challenging ourselves to think about all the ways we can successfully accomplish the goal and not only look at challenges in the same way we have done so 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 challenges. He believes these initiatives have the potential to deliver 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 where exotic creatures and coral reefs abound. One of his favorite scuba diving spots off the Hawaiian islands is where he first experienced cave diving. In the future, he plans to scuba dive off the coasts of Greece and the Middle East.
Justin Ronca is the Chief Data Scientist in the Office of Planning, Analysis and Risk Management. USDA photo.