Shawn McCarthy | The smart money's on business intelligence


Shawn P. McCarthy

In the government, integrated enterprise-level business intelligence (BI) is a bit like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but only a few organizations do a good job of understanding all its nuances. Fewer still have their BI under control.
To become masters of their own BI, agencies need to understand the concept and how to apply it. It could even help improve their scores on the quarterly Executive Branch Management Scorecards.

Business intelligence is a broad term that generally refers to application programs and system technologies that gather, store, analyze and provide access to specialized data. BI activities can include trend analysis, decision support, query and reporting, in-depth data mining, online analytical processing, statistical analysis and forecasting.

A properly designed and implemented BI solution can help people across an enterprise become better business decision-makers by helping them understand their own data. Refined development of a BI system over several months also helps organizations find ways to optimize their business.

Government has the same BI needs as those mentioned above, but with a much stronger focus on service to citizens, plus issues such as national security, infrastructure protection, and progress toward health and education goals. Although industries may focus on business processes ' and profits ' when optimizing their BI systems, governments tend to focus on things such as:

  • Payer optimization for taxes and licensing.
  • Case management improvements for human services, licensing and inspection.
  • Grants management and reporting.
  • Adding a strong geographic element for collected data.

If your department needs to get started in BI, here are some common starting points.

  • Do a full inventory of what sort of data your group needs to routinely collect, analyze and report on. Do you need to take action when trends change? What are the thresholds?

  • Develop a database to collect information on specific database objects, application services and other resources. These reference items can live across multiple databases and applications, both internal and external to your organization.

  • Create a business logic application which interacts with the database and associated systems to extract specific data sets at specific time periods. Some organizations custom-develop this application, while others integrate a commercial solution such as those offered by Business Objects, Information Builders or Cognos.

Once these are set, the business logic application transforms or translates the appropriate data from the multiple-source systems into the business intelligence system.

The business logic application should interact with other applications to perform specific business decisions, functions, alerts and reports.

Mature solutions usually include dynamic analysis and trending information for planning.

Besides the automated functions, most BI systems also include a user interface for structuring new queries and generating customized reports, including the ability to change parameters to answer what if questions.

A great government example: The National Institutes of Health's Business Intelligence System, built as a data warehouse that incorporates data and services from multiple legacy systems. It was launched as a series of projects developed to meet specific business needs such as travel, ethics, workforce management and human resources reporting.

Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager at IDC Government Insights, in McLean, Va. E-mail him at

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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