Big Data is Big News

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The goal of further research is to help states use the right data in effective ways to illuminate the best solutions.

Big data is now big news. To help tap the full potential of data, the Obama administration is investing more than $200 million in its Big Data Research and Development Initiative “to greatly improve the tools and techniques needed to access, organize, and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data.” Earlier this year, congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) – now the Speaker of the House of Representatives – endorsed the establishment of a bipartisan commission to harness Big Data for the federal government, saying that in order to “…make gov­ern­ment more ef­fect­ive, we need to know what works.” And the National Science Foundation recently announced $5 million in seed money to establish a series of regional “brain trusts” to promote big data innovation across the country.   

Clearly, there is momentum in Washington to explore how big data can improve government performance. Not all uses of big data are legitimate, however, and data in the wrong hands—or compiled without the public’s knowledge—can be abused. But when data are carefully collected and thoroughly analyzed, they help improve performance at every level of government. Analyzing data can help set goals and clarify priorities; reveal valuable but hidden or misunderstood information; prevent waste, fraud, and abuse; save taxpayer dollars; and debunk inaccurate conclusions based on anecdotes, thus separating reality from myth. And when government performs better, citizens benefit in many ways—from safer food, drugs, and medical devices to improved schools and more effective law enforcement, to greater accountability and transparency in the expenditure of public funds.

State agencies and governments are already collecting large amounts of data, much of it electronic. But compiling data is not the same as harnessing data, much of which is never put to use on behalf of taxpayers because it remains in one agency’s silo without being shared in an effective way with other agencies. For example, in 2013, the IRS discovered that thousands of prisoners in Ohio were receiving illegal income tax refunds. The Dayton Daily News, quoting from an IRS statement, noted that when accurate prison data is available, “the IRS is very successful at detecting and stopping incorrect refunds. [But] there are still significant challenges in getting complete and consistent data from the multiple jurisdictions involved.”

Some states are experimenting with data analytic methodologies to improve policy, budgetary, and operational decision-making. But no organization is systematically collecting and sharing in-depth information yet on how states are utilizing data. Nor is there a comprehensive source of information about what states are trying to do with big data, whether they face common challenges, and how effective various approaches are.

Over the next 18 months The Pew Charitable Trusts will be reviewing how all 50 states are attempting to use broad sets of data to improve decision-making and performance. Preliminary research shows that all 50 face multiple barriers to sharing agency-based data that could make government more efficient and effective and that some have found workarounds or other solutions to overcoming these obstacles. Several view big data through the lens of performance management or budgeting, others have chief information officers who are leading the charge to integrate data systems, and still others have made progress using data analytics agency by agency in a decentralized environment.

The goal of further research is to help states use the right data in effective ways to illuminate the best solutions. Policymakers will be able to see how other states are using data to make better policy decisions. Executive branch leaders will learn about practices that match citizens with effective programs, such as connecting skilled but unemployed workers with successful training and job placement services. Oversight officials will find ways to improve program evaluations. Budget writers and analysts will see how other states have saved money by harnessing their data.

The good news is that more governors, state legislators, and agency heads are joining the federal government in discovering the great value in using data to separate fact from fiction. By making better use of data for smarter decisions, policymakers are seizing an opportunity to serve citizens more effectively and enhance the public’s trust in government, a worthy and much-needed cause.

Tom Conroy is vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

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