Paul McCloskey

Big data = smaller government

It’s becoming more obvious every day that doing more with less — by individuals, businesses and government agencies — is the new normal. As the economy appears to be undergoing a global reset in which U.S. firms can tap offshore labor to make goods for pennies on the dollar, a grand leveling seems certain.

Can the U.S. compete on this new playing field? Without a doubt. American entrepreneurs have proven they are the most creative on the planet, having built the technologies that have powered the world economy for generations: the light bulb, the transistor, the television, the personal computer, the smart phone; the list goes on and on.

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Some of these technologies wouldn’t have gotten as far as fast without U.S. taxpayer support. The prime example, the Internet itself, was spawned from defense research grants. At a smaller, more experimental pace, some government agencies are now embracing yet another potential game changer — also developed in the U.S. — with the potential to help workers become vastly more productive.

Analytics, a breed of software that uses computer technology and statistical math to sift ultra-large datasets, is increasingly being put to use by government as a way to discover economic and operational advantages that otherwise would be hidden in the streams of unstructured data pouring out of most government programs and projects.

That is the motivation behind the Obama administration’s push to create a national system of electronic health records. Although the convenience and efficiency of this technology is good to have, the real prize is the clinical data produced by the thousands of patient encounters taking place every day. With analytics, this data can be sorted to discover which treatments work best, where the next pandemic is percolating and how to take hidden costs out of the system.

Law enforcement is another area in which the use of analytics is being used to make government more dynamic. Grand Junction, Colo., Deputy Chief of Police Troy Smith told GCN that although police departments have long had “tons of data at their disposal,” the difference today is that his agency has staff members “who are really proficient at analyzing data using different pieces of software and are beginning to put together patterns that exist in that data between jurisdictions that allow us to deploy our resources much smarter than we've ever been able to do before.”

Some say the upside of analytics is unlimited. In a report earlier this year, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that big data, sorted by analytic tools, could  “create significant value for the world economy, enhancing the productivity and competitiveness of companies and the public sector, and creating [a] substantial economic surplus for consumers.” For the U.S. health care sector, savings would be $300 billion in value every year, it said.

Will analytics help show how to pull the economy out of its current dive? Probably. But it is a much surer bet that continued investment in these tools by government will help make government smaller, smarter and more productive and its citizens financially — and physically — healthier.

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.


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