By Brent Kastner, CTO, GovDelivery
As a self-confessed gadget geek, I tend to have the latest cell phone in my pocket, but do I really need the most up-to-date phone? That question is similar to the question government leaders must ask themselves when faced with new technology options. For example, the “big data” buzz continues in 2013 prompting many government officials to ask if this is really something their municipality, state or agency should be actively planning, budgeting, and implementing. Big data differs from a cell phone, of course, but the questions you ask to ascertain need are the same. What will this do for us that we can’t do now? What value will we gain from implementing this technology? Will our approach to our mission objectives based on legacy technology be obsolete if we don’t follow this current trend?
With one foot in the tech world and the other in the business world, I am a natural problem-solver who’s fascinated when technology and business concepts intersect to produce a useful tool, and that’s just what I see happening with big data. Of course, big data on its own is just that – lots of information. We can collect more data today than ever before in our history and a wider variety of data often in real time. Yet without analysis, the data means nothing. Collecting data, analyzing it, correlating it with archived data and finding actionable solutions to problems is the heart and soul of big data. I call it “distilling big data.” The power is not in the data but in how that data is used.
Governments will find value when they look at implementing some of the tools, techniques, and practices around “distilling big data”. In fact, the federal government considers big data so important that in 2012 President Obama launched the Big Data Research and Development Initiative comprised of 84 big data programs spread across six departments. At the local level there is also a need to explore how big data techniques can benefit constituents. I get excited when I consider the possibilities.
For example, a city could distill information about potholes, traffic jams, or crime and use that information to plot road improvement programs, traffic light analysis, and police patrol routes and presence to make positive change. By correlating and analyzing data, citizens and government officials can learn where to focus their effort and gain new insights into how to solve these and other problems. It’s not necessarily about gathering vast quantities of data but about correlating data you already have or that exists in varied forms that in the past would have been difficult or impossible to compare and analyzing this new combination of data to find fresh solutions. In today’s data-driven world, “reporting” is no longer enough. Governments, like the private sector, are making the leap towards analysis using the tools and techniques embodied in big data concepts.
Consider another example where the location of fast-food restaurants can be plotted against another public data-set such as childhood obesity rates in the inner city. An agency focused on making positive change for children could use that data to target specific sections of the city, county. state, or nation to focus on creating additional nutrition and healthy eating campaigns for higher-risk areas based on the data. Think this is too far-fetched? GovDelivery can actually help in efforts like this.
Like all game-changing concepts “Big Data” is both hype and reality. As a business-focused technology professional, I am encouraged that big data is becoming a widely discussed topic, especially in the public sector. For the first time cheap storage, computers, and new technologies and techniques are intersecting to allow data-driven analysis of public sector efficacy. As these techniques are widely adopted in the public sector you will see more efficient decision making, increased openness with citizens and stakeholders, and a leaner, more efficient government. I think that is more than just hype!
In the meantime, if you’re a government techie, think about what’s most important to your constituents and how distilling big data can help you meet those needs. I’d like to hear about any concerns you might have and if you’ve thought about how “big data distilled” might help you find solutions.