Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Big Data and Municipal Governments...

Data analytics, or "Big Data", is already widely used by businesses to find correlations that help to make predictions - predictions about consumer behavior, predictions about value-chains and supply-chains, etc.  By doing so, Big Data greatly improves organizational efficiency and forecasting, spotting trends as they emerge or even before they emerge.

So why not put Big Data to use in order to improve the workings of government?

In their book titled, "The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance", Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford explore how municipal governments, in particular, can use Big Data effectively to radically transform how local governments serve its citizens.  As summarized by the Harvard Gazette:

A “responsive” city is one that doesn’t just make ordinary transactions like paying a parking ticket easier, but that uses the information generated by its interactions with residents to better understand and predict the needs of neighborhoods, to measure the effectiveness of city agencies and workers, to identify waste and fraud, to increase transparency, and, most importantly, to solve problems.

The requirements for municipal governments wanting to adopt a Big Data strategy include, first, building a high-speed fiber network, and second, that they should publish their collected data sets publicly and with full transparency. The idea, says Goldsmith, is to allow employees to see other agencies, allow residents to hold their city hall responsible, but also to provide data that can lead to breakthroughs and solutions from both inside and outside government.

Surely, this is, indeed, a potential boon for municipal governments.  However, the potential downside to governments relying on Big Data, it must be reiterated, is that Big Data has often been criticized for enabling discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  Alistair Croll famously declared it this generation's Civil Rights issue.

In fact, a recent report by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights highlighted this danger of institutionalizing discrimination, and even endorsed a document titled, "Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data".  However, the group's recommendations include such lofty goals as "an end to high-tech profiling" and "greater individual control over personal information", both of which seem unlikely.  And by "unlikely", we mean there's no chance it's ever going to happen.

The take here is that the era of Big Data for governments is coming, like it or not.



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