What can government learn from the private sector on big data? After attending the Innovation Enterprise Big Data Innovation Summit in Toronto June 20, it seems that government is more complex, and has more data.
For example, Kobo, the e-book people, described the intricacies of data analysis that redirects a “Dr. Who” inquiry out of the medical section and to “Doctor Who” in the science fiction section. Another speaker described an app that would help you find an empty parking space. Lord knows how well that will work, since downtown parking disappears in a microsecond just as you are about to pull into a space.
But it has nothing on the complexity of mining data on how to make employment programs more effective. Or using health data to sift through 22 million prescriptions to identify controlled drug abusers and alert pharmacies to problem cases.
The public service traditionally prides itself on consistency – providing the same level and nature of service to each citizen. But big data provides the opportunity to customize service to better meet an individual’s preferences and needs. Should we take that opportunity?
Ontario Corporate Chief Strategist Dr. Samantha Liscio referenced the Drummond Report and how big data analytics could support the use of evidence-based policy development and the evaluation of efficiency and achieving objectives.
Another use of big data, popularized by Google, is the tracking the geographic origins of Google inquiries on flu symptoms and remedies, which has proven to be an accurate predictor of the location of imminent flu outbreaks. Similar analysis can lead to prediction of where various needs will develop and the rapid deployment of resources for “just-in-time” response – predictive data to speed the response.
All of this must be done within the constraints of privacy. In the private sector, companies are reluctant to share competitive data. In the public sector, legislation and citizen concerns limit the sharing and use of data. To make better use of data, governments must find ways to share data across departments, while building in “privacy by design,” Liscio observed.
A key concept was presented by Jordan Christensen of Kobo: “Nerds love data.” This is a fundamentally different value from people who love their own opinions, and see no need to seek confirmatory (or discrediting) data. And that seems to be the hub of the argument. If, like Don Drummond, you believe policy and practice should be data driven, there is lots of opportunity to explore big data in government. If, like some others, you believe you are right and don’t need data, then it is a waste of time and money.
No doubt data vs. opinion will be an ongoing struggle. But the potential for additional insights into program effectiveness and feedback to help develop policy is exciting. Now might be the time to take a stand.