Coping with Big Data
As Google and Facebook look to finally capitalise on the massive amounts of data they hold on their users, it's time for Government to start learning from the private sector. Of course there's controversy and consternation about changed privacy rules and new uses of our information to streamline and target advertising but, realistically, which of us will be ceasing to Google-search or closing our Facebook accounts? The evidence tells us, very few. Why? Because in spite of our discomfort and adjustment pangs, both companies will be taking our data and putting it use both for their and our interests - for the vast majority of us, a little trade-off in privacy will mean better usage and more efficient searches. Government needs to learn this lesson.
Thus far, the public have seen little benefit from the increases of data held by public bodies. All we've seen and heard is the bad news - information lost, private data misused. We get very little sense of what big data can do for us as citizens and as service users. And what's true of the wider public is, sadly, true for public servants too. Whilst Government has admirably set itself to improving transparency so that the public can keep an eye of their servants and check up on spending and resource allocation, little thought appears to have been given to how we can make data work for those who collect, collate and are supposed to use it for the improvement of the services they provide. Too often the demands for data really only mean fresh paperwork for public servants - more form-filling that feels utterly divorced from the everyday vocations that brought them into public service in the first place. If Government is to catch-up with the private sector on big data this has to change.
That's why Demos' report The Data Dividend - out today and the product of two years of work sponsored by analytics firm SAS - recommends small but radical changes to improve public sector workers' relationship with the data they use. We want big data to become the public servant's friend and to aide them in delivering public services cheaper and more effectively. Government must streamline the collection of data and bring it into the working lives of social workers, police officers and teachers. Advances in smart technology make it possible for public servants to record information live as they do their jobs - no more heading back to the office to file piles of forms - and to benefit from their colleagues inputting in real time too. A relatively modest investment in smart tech for frontline workers could save the taxpayer millions in unproductive hours of bureaucracy whilst showing public servants the relevance and use of data to them in the real world of the work that they do.
The report makes further recommendations too. From ensuring that data platforms are easily cross-referenced and merged to ensuring that private companies which generate commercially useful data while delivering public contracts share that information with their commissioners. All are aimed at bridging the gap between the private and public sector in how we capitalise on big data and at ensuring that the data revolution pays dividends for Government and taxpayers. We will not fulfill our potential as a nation if we fail to adapt to modernity or leave the public sector behind as technology opens up new opportunities for efficiency and effectiveness. It's time to claim our data dividend.