For Federal Agencies: What’s the Big Deal with Big Data?

This post, written by Steve Krauss, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum

“Big Data” is the Big Buzzword in government tech circles these days. At the recent American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in Williamsburg, VA, it was clear that yesterday’s hot topic—movement to the cloud—has already been assimilated into the general understanding of the tech landscape, and it was so-called Big Data that was piquing everyone’s interest. But the question we have to ask ourselves, as we’ve become enamored with this topic, is: What really is the Big Deal about Big Data?

As a fun “etymological detective story” in the New York Times pointed out earlier this year, the term Big Data can be traced back to the mid-1990s. But the idea is nothing new—once upon a time, it was simply called IT business intelligence. When the name first came into the popular vernacular, it signified incomprehensibly enormous datasets suspected to hold secrets of great value, if only we had the tools to tease them out. Today, when we talk of Big Data, we’re generally talking about the ubiquity of data and the tools available to make sense of it and turn it into something of value.

As an International Institute for Analytics paper on the use of Big Data in the private sector put it: “When managers in large firms are impressed by big data, it’s not the ‘bigness’ that impresses them. Instead it’s one of three other aspects of big data: the lack of structure, the opportunities presented, and [the] low cost of the technologies involved.” The same is true in the public sector—“Bigness” is not the quality that is driving continued interest in the topic; it’s the potential to leverage existing data sets to produce meaningful, previously unattainable, results.

Outcomes and ROI

When assessing the data on hand, it’s important to ask two questions: What new outcomes or strategic goals will processing and analyzing this data allow us to achieve? And how do we achieve specific, measurable outcomes and an ROI for the mission of the agency?

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