Big Data: What’s In It For Government?

Joseph Engelberger once said, “I can’t define a robot, but I know one when I see one.”  Would he really?  Maybe the entire futuristic notion of the mechanical human is misguided?  After all, the future is now and I don’t see robots anywhere…

What I do see is the same sort of life convenience and functionality coming from an entire array of interconnected devices that tend to my needs. I see the Internet bringing everyday things to life to serve in an intelligent way.  What’s more impressive is the potential—the potential for this ease of use, intelligent interaction between man-and-machine for the power of good.  So how relevant is this trend, really?  How does it or can it make my life better? And what’s in it for government, in particular?

The future of interconnectivity

Sanjay Poonen’s Forbes article, here, does a great job highlighting the myriad ways in which little bits of data here and there can be intelligently channeled to make your coffee pot smarter, or your thermostat more responsive to your every chill and hot flash.   (His notion of the “Internet of Things” is supported by AT&T’s “Internet Everywhere” initiative as well.)

Larry Downes’ Forbes article discusses the convergence of the AT&T network into a wholly IP based network of data packets, planned for completion by 2015.   Even more telling is the Pew Internet and American Life Project that shows that 46 percent of American adults are smartphone owners.  Smartphone owners outnumber “dumb” phone owners.  Growth in smartphone ownership is rising as well, across all demographics, age groups, education levels, and geographies[i].

Does all this matter? The answer relies on the few organizations that can manage the massive amounts of data, turn them into intelligence, and push them back to people to help them make everyday decisions, make their lives easier, or support them in a microenvironment at the point of need.

What entity stands to benefit the most from all this? The government.  Seriously.  This trend, this brave new world, has its biggest implications in the realm of how citizen services are delivered and how information about the country and its people becomes intelligence.

Big data insights in federal, state, and local governments

The federal government in May released Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People.  Rattling off chapter titles makes it clear that the Feds see exactly what groups like AT&T, SAP and Pew are seeing.  The report focuses on open data as the default and making it consumable through APIs (for Web 2.0 and mobile app development), meaning that data can be mined to become intelligence.  Here are some of my key takeaways from the report:

Data as the path to operational progress

The report gives a great example on decoupling data from presentation.  The CDC example discusses how, no matter the platform, data can be updated once and pushed to their main website, mobile site and made available for private usage or various “modules.”  Not only does this serve to get the content out to folks who need it and can use it intelligently, but it also streamlines the CDCs operations, frees up resources, and allows them to focus on disease control and not IT—after all, IT isn’t in the name but Disease Control is.

Enterprise-level scaling

Enterprise level management is also the order of the day.  Disparate procurement of technology will only continue to stifle the development of big data as a way of life.  Cross-functionality, interoperability, and a prudent conservation of taxpayer dollars at the highest level make for the best investments.

This is equally, if not more so, true at the state level.  Fractured procurement policy and management techniques for not just IT proper but all services, especially those managed, requires governor and cabinet level oversight.  Many problems occur at the state level particularly due to competing constitutionally of elected officials on par with the Governor of each state and a fractured approach to distributing policies to elected or appointed agency heads.

Local voices unite!

At the local level, especially in small to mid-sized city/county governments, the approach is unified, if existent.  Vision and oversight are essential here.  With federal and state policies in place that make sense, locals will be better able to take advantage of those policies to do things like make a database of public information, develop an API or even just create a strategic framework for how to use citizen data for a holistic approach to government to citizen interaction–as long as they have someone to take an active role in representing the value of a coordinated implementation strategy.

For a great perspective on enterprise level management and general reforms, read Smart Government: Bureaucracy with a Business Brain by the Commission for a New Georgia and see how the mindset was applied in areas across government.

It’s all about the customer

All of this makes way for a customer-centric approach, which is the backbone of this brave new world of big data.  Just like precision retail, the entire open data endeavor, improved management and the general collection of data, is to serve citizens; otherwise, what is the point?  Enterprise level customer service has never been a focus of government at any level.  That’s not to say that public servants aren’t dedicated, civic-minded or altruistic, but rather that there is no embedded cultural proclivity towards customer service at the highest level because policymakers and cabinet officials come and go with every election.  Managing challenges and keeping the ship afloat is standard operating procedure; big data enables innovation and the ability to focus on people like never before.

What innovations do you see arising from government with the growth of big data? What implications do you see in advancements like big data and the Internet of Things for your government and community?



[i] Smith, Aaron.  “46% of American Adults are Smartphone Owners.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & AmericanLife Project.  March 1, 2012.  Accessed 11/1/2012.
Josh Heard Marketing Manager AT&T About Josh