Government Opportunities to Harness “Big Data”

Recently more attention has been drawn to the emergence of “Big Data”—large scale data sets that businesses and government are using to unlock new value using today’s computing and communications power. As a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) study recently showed, Big Data offers a wide range of commercial opportunities in virtually every sector of the economy for the United States. To take one example, the authors estimate that better use of big data in health care could generate an additional $300 billion in long-term value, with approximately two-thirds of that coming from a direct reduction in national health care expenditures.

The use of Big Data should not be confined to just the private sector; data offers incredible new opportunities to the public sector as well. Policymakers have the opportunity to use Big Data to improve government in areas such as public safety, public health, public utilities and public transportation. ITIF has discussed many of these opportunities before.

Consider the following:

Better use of data can help government agencies, from city agencies to federal bureaucracies, operate more efficiently, create more transparency, and make more informed decisions. And government can use cloud computing to more efficiently develop online systems that provide anytime, anywhere access to information. However, government officials should do more to spur uses of data. Taking advantage of these opportunities will require federal government leadership, such as the Department of Commerce creating a data policy office to spur data innovation and overcome obstacles to adoption, all the while protecting privacy. And going forward, government agencies will increasingly have to deal with issues such as data security and identity management, so these issues do not become impediments to successful utilization of data analytics. Local governments can help pioneer the use of data as well. For example, the city of Boston city sponsored the development of a mobile app “Street Bump” to automatically determine where potholes are based on data collected using citizen’s smart phones equipped with GPS and accelerometers. Tools like these are helping create “smart cities” and build a world that is alive with information.

Although there have been many successes in this area, much more can be done. For example, in homeland security, law enforcement must deal with a changing threat landscape. While corporations and individuals can increasingly use better technology to communicate and store data security, criminals can also use these same tools. As a result, law enforcement is increasingly confronting the “Going Dark” problem where they have less access to investigative data, not because of a lack of legal authority, but because of technological hurdles.Yet while law enforcement may have a reduced ability to intercept some types of communication, they now have many more sources of data, such as transactional data, to use to detect threats. As ITIF discussed at an event in 2010 following the Christmas Day terrorist attempt, the intelligence community still needs to develop better analytical tools to “connect the dots” and allow intelligence officers to do a better job. Similarly in many other sectors, Big Data offers government opportunities to reinvent how to operate effectively.

Overall, more investment in data infrastructure and analytics will enable government to better provide and efficiently deliver values and services to its citizens.


Photo Credit: Flickr User mrflip

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.