The Big Deal about Big Data

Jul 16, 2013 | ARTICLE

Today we seem to have a big problem about open and big data; it’s overwhelming. We are surrounded by such terms as unstructured and structured data, data analytics, predictive analytics--and it’s a bit confusing from all points of view. A few years back the Public Technology Institute surveyed technology managers about their use of the free, built-in data analytics found in most social media sites so they could better understand the results and usage of their applications. The answers were surprising: nearly 90% stated they did not use them, and the top three reasons given were:

  1. Staff were too busy with other tasks
  2. They were never trained on using the “free” built-in data analytics
  3. Their managers never asked for it!

The last response came as a surprise. It appears we have another example of “we don’t know what we don’t know.” In our current environment we have all become aware that we are awash in data and are just now beginning to harness it in ways that enable us to make better and more informed decisions in just about every category of public management.

Technology has always had the capacity to collect data but we have been rather slow to understand the value of capturing it in all its forms. Just as all data is not the same, understanding the terms can be useful when speaking to the technical folks. For example, “open data” is about data that is accessible without requiring a license and depending on how you obtain it, it may be free or there may be a cost. Similarly, “big data” is usually referring to large amounts of data, which can be structured, or unstructured, and often aggregated to produce new apps, reports, or useful charts and graphs. The bottom line is that we now have machines that can process enormous amounts of data in fractions of seconds, which some have referred to as the four pillars of big data, which are:

  1.  Volume – the ability to process and analyze monumental amounts of data.
  2.  Velocity – the speed in which the data can be processed and analyzed.
  3.  Variety – the ability to pick and choose various data sets at any moment.
  4.  Veracity – the ability to verify the integrity and trusted sources of data.

The “do more with less imperative” has not gone away even among those local governments that are experiencing the beginnings of a financial recovery. This places greater pressure on public managers not only to make better and informed decisions, but to be able to have the data to support their decisions. Hence the reinvented term data-driven decision making for public managers has emerged.

To help promote the usage of big and open data, many cities and counties have begun hiring chief data officers. Today there are approximately a dozen localities that have moved in this direction and most have begun by identifying what data can be found and made public. Early attempts focused on finding existing data sets that can be posted on websites for the public to see and hopefully private entrepreneurs to do something with–developing data into social media apps. Making data available for making better and more informed decisions requires a bit more planning and work.

Too often we think of data that can be viewed in two opposite extremes – on one side we have massive amounts of data as presented in spreadsheets, and the other can be found in oversimplified infographics. For example, taking data from a 311 Call Center and displaying the types of calls, types by location, time of day, etc., in an interactive 3D pie chart provides public managers with visible data that helps guide better decisions, especially when it comes to resource deployment. This has greater value than simply reporting how many calls were handled in a given period of time.  

Local governments should establish a “data/information” policy that begins with taking an inventory of what types of data a city or county has, how is it collected, stored, retrieved, and in what format? Are there certain types of information that should be collected? Who is in charge of data? What types of information would you like to “see” that would help public managers make better decisions? What are the best options for displaying data? Perhaps it might make sense to establish a data task force or committee that meets to discuss the need for improved information (data) and make sure that public safety, public works, parks and recreation, as well as GIS staff are included along with senior managers and the senior IT staff.

It may be surprising just how much data a locality has at its disposal. There are a variety of strategies that can be adopted and there are a host of low-cost solutions. The most important thing to keep in mind is that an enhanced data-driven information system is no longer a luxury. It is now becoming a necessity and when properly implemented can actually save a lot of money, time, and resources. For those fortunate to have a chief information officer on staff, it’s time to reexamine the “I” as standing for information (or innovation) and not just “infrastructure.”



The #LocalGov Technology Alliance is an Esri-ICMA initiative to explore the world of big data, open data, apps and dashboards, and what it all means for local governments. Join the conversation on the #LocalGov Technology Alliance Blog today!





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