Get two or more CIOs together and inevitably the topic will turn to “big data.” It’s a term that has made its way beyond the tech space into the vernacular, and we hear it all the time. But what is big data, really, and do all organizations have it? The Oxford English Dictionary defines big data as “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.” These data sets can be integrated from a variety of sources — from mobile data and social media to sales and customer contacts — and can include anything from address, age, blood type, household income, and so on. No longer just the purview of savvy media and marketers who want to target prospective customers, analytics are disrupting nearly every industry across the globe at an unprecedented pace. Big data is remaking everything from how we watch TV, rent a hotel room, do our banking, catch a ride to the airport, and even how we receive preventative healthcare. A single piece of information doesn’t tell us much, but millions of integrated data sets can reveal correlations that tell a remarkable story and create unforeseen opportunities. Leveraging these prospects has become commonplace in the corporate arena where the company that collects and analyzes data the fastest has a decided competitive advantage. The Government, although it has amassed a vast treasure trove of cradle-to-grave data relating to people and businesses, has traditionally lagged behind its corporate counterparts in investing in data systems and strategic planning to outline how to collect, evaluate, and transform this data to solve real-world problems.
"In order to be successful, organizations have to be adaptive and responsive to change; which is often much easier said than done"
The good news is that the government is making progress across the country by tapping into this potential, breaking down silos, and learning how to leverage the information gathered across the enterprise. For example, Minnesota uses data analytics to reduce unemployment fraud and overpayments, while New York is saving taxpayers millions of dollars each year by applying an analytics program designed to spot tax fraud. Because of advances in big data, several states, including Delaware, have implemented strategies to monitor prescription drugs to help combat the opioid substance abuse epidemic. While Delaware recently reported a 12 percent decline in opioid prescriptions statewide compared to the first quarter of 2017, according to statistics reported to the Center for Disease Control, Florida’s (which was widely known as an epicenter for the crisis)targeted efforts resulted in a decrease of opioids prescribed in 80 percent of the counties between 2010 and 2015. During the same period, there were significantly fewer prescription opioid-related overdose deaths across the state.
While the opportunities are nearly infinite, there are some real challenges to creating relevant analytics with data from across state agencies to improve citizen services. To leverage the most economic and social impact from the massive amount of information available, there must be a clear definition of the problem that needs to be solved and a detailed roadmap is essential to guide which data is collected; how it will be integrated, used and stored; as well as the tools that can ingest a wide variety of data types. The expertise of data scientists with the specialized skills is often an overlooked essential piece to the solution to focus on the right data sets, organize, and analyze the information for patterns and correlations in order to answer the all-important question, “What is the data telling us?” Important considerations like security, legal and privacy issues that must be resolved before putting a plan into action. This type of interagency cooperation and data exchange can be a transformative process if all the stakeholders are pulling in the same direction. In order to be successful, organizations have to be adaptive and responsive to change; which is often much easier said than done. The same silos that help establish boundaries and allow teams to focus on specific areas of expertise can become obstacles. It is important not to underestimate the guardians of the silos. Executive level support, establishing trusting relationships, and education efforts are imperative to overcoming these challenges and proactively engage stakeholders to gain buy-in for data sharing. Tackling a problem that impacts a broad range of citizens will require unprecedented cooperation among partner agencies.
In Delaware, we’ve had successes with our Open Data Council and partnership with sister state agencies. One of many examples is our Department of Education, which has made great strides by creating data warehouses that provide schools across the state with dynamic dashboards and reports on student progress and activities. Governor Carney’s Family Services Cabinet Council is currently working on an Integrated Data System with the goal to increase collaboration between state social service agencies by developing the capacity to link and share data between agencies in an ongoing fashion. This will enable predictive analytics to be leveraged to help agencies better meet the needs of families by targeting resources such as affordable housing, job training and, mental and substance abuse treatment, while also combating violence in our state. These analytics can reveal which families and individuals are most at risk and deliver relevant information to social service agencies so they can respond more quickly with appropriate resources to disrupt negative cycles. The plan also includes the development of applications and tools to assist professionals in the field to have access to real-time client information and provide targeted services.
The possibilities are endless across all sectors — from healthcare and law enforcement to agriculture and transportation — and we need to see the bigger picture. Literally. Stand too close to a Monet and all you see are little specks of paint, but take a step back and all those specks come together to reveal a highly complex masterpiece. Organizations that make the transformation to effectively utilizing data analytics to create real solutions will position themselves to deliver a level of service and value that we can scarcely even imagine today. Tomorrow’s opportunities and tough problems will inevitably warrant such an approach.