The anniversary of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was celebrated on 17 May as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). The theme this year is “Big Data for Big Impact”.
As has been pointed out by Houlin Zhao, the secretary general of ITU, the theme for this year is to explore the power of Big Data for development. The analysis of vast amounts of data collected from the different devices that we use on a day-to-day basis provides an opportunity to discover hidden secrets and enables us to do predictive analysis and informed decision making across individual, organizational, societal, national and international levels.
Almost 90% of the world’s data today was generated during the past two years, with 2.5 quintillion bytes of data added each day. Moreover, approximately 90% of it is unstructured. Still, the overwhelming amount of Big Data from the Web and the cloud offers new opportunities for discovery, value creation and rich business intelligence for decision support in any organization. This collected data is processed and disseminated in various forms. During this process, it should be ensured that the information is not distorted; not disclosed; not appropriated; not stolen; and not intruded upon within specified rules and guidelines. Hence the importance of government regulation and policies on the use of such collected data and associated privacy rights.
Big Data and associated analytics are beneficial in various areas, such as solving traffic problems in cities; targeting healthcare delivery; efficient supply chain management; preventive steps for environmental protection; providing a personalized educational experience for students; enabling security to individuals and society at large; and informed policymaking.
One of the most critical aspects of Big Data is its impact on how decisions are made and who gets to make them. When data is scarce, expensive to obtain, or not available in digital form, it makes sense to let people with experience make decisions, based on patterns and relationships they have observed and internalized. Leaders state their opinions about what the future holds, what’s going to happen, how well something will work, and so on as per their “intuition”—and then plan accordingly. However, in the age of Big Data, leaders and managers in private organizations and government have to be data-driven. They should have the courage to ignore their intuition and do what data says. This requires a change in mindset and effective training to make data-driven decisions.
While businesses have adopted Big Data and analytics in various forms very effectively to personalize offerings, and to improve business efficiency, governments have been laggards. The possible benefits of Big Data analytics in government could range from transforming government programmes and empowering citizens to improving transparency and enabling the participation of all stakeholders.
However, governments do differ from businesses in terms of goals (profit to stakeholders versus sustainable development), mission (development of competitive edge and customer satisfaction versus security of basic rights and promotion of general welfare) and decision making (short-term maximizing profit versus long-term promoting public interest). While decision makers are limited in businesses, they are a diverse set in government. The government has an enormous amount of data in legacy databases and forms that need to be curated and migrated for new-age analytics tools. Collection of data is also a paramount task for government as data is received from multiple online and offline channels. Sharing data between departments and across ministries is a challenge, given the jurisdictional boundaries that exist.
Several countries, such as the UK, US and European Union (EU) member countries, have started big data government programmes. The UN’s 2012 e-government survey gave high marks to several Asian countries, notably South Korea, Singapore and Japan. These leaders have launched diverse initiatives on Big Data and started numerous projects.
The Open Government Data Platform initiative, similar to the Data.gov initiative of the US government started in 2009, is a welcome start in opening up public data for use by analysts, researchers and practitioners. It is time to formulate a comprehensive Big Data programme across Central and state government ministries/departments with help from industry, academic and research institutions. Big Data can enhance the government’s ability to serve its citizens and address major national challenges involving the economy, healthcare, job creation, natural disasters, and terrorism.
While privacy of data is important for both businesses and government, public trust in government is particularly important. Hence, any breach of confidentiality regarding data that is collected and processed by the government could have serious ramifications. Thus the importance of data protection and privacy regulations and guidelines, as exemplified by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.
Big Data can have a big impact only if used on a massive scale—with safeguards—by governments for the delivery of public goods and services.
V. Sridhar is a professor at IIIT Bangalore.