Bob Gourley on the Ethics, Analytics and Future of Big Data

Bob Gourley, editor of CTOvision as well as founder and CTO of Crucial Point, LLC, was recently interviewed by WashingtonExec, where he shared his views on emerging information technology, government needs, and Big Data. The original article can be found here, and the interview is reproduced below:

How does Bob Gourley, founder and CTO of Crucial Point, LLCand Editor of the popular tech blog define big data?

WashingtonExec caught up with Gourley to talk about what he learned from his time in government that has guided him in the private sector, what he predicts will be “the next big thing” for the IT industry, and also gave an update on the 2012 Big Data Solutions Awards.

Securing IP addresses, banking apps and predictive analytics were also discussed in this interview.

WashingtonExec: Could you start out by telling us a little about your background?

Bob Gourley: My background was an operational intelligence officer in the Navy where I did all source intelligence support to operational forces. In the last four years of my career I was doing intelligence support to new missions of cyber security. I then spent time in industry, where I worked primarily on the strategy and technology development side. From there I went back into government as the Chief Technology Officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. I was there during a period of enterprise consolidation and enhanced support to military operations. I left DIA in late 2007 and began writing for technologists like me; enterprise CTOs. That gave rise to the blog


“I joke around and I say it’s a little like being in the mafia – you can never really leave the government. Once you’ve been in they keep you in. They bring you in for studies, assessments, panels and advisory boards – I really enjoy that kind of thing.”


WashingtonExec: How have you gained 9,000 monthly subscribers or followers? What made you start

Bob Gourley: I had messages that I wanted to provide for others but it was also in part for me; a way to force myself to keep learning and to keep studying the new technologies coming over the horizon. I would be doing that even if I just had a handful of readers. I really think I would be studying and writing. As I started writing people started reading and started contributing to the blog by providing comments or suggesting articles or suggesting themes that we should address. That is when the readership started growing – when there was more interaction. As people began to interact via Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter the dialogue continued. We began a series of newsletters that are fed by the blog and there to spread by word of mouth. A couple of lessons learned; one is I think any writer would tell you it takes a discipline . . . you need to set agendas and goals for yourself and keep writing. Another is, it really pays to listen to your readers because your readers will tell you their hardest problems and their challenges. I also run the government big data newsletter. It’s a way that I stay in touch with people weekly that are interested in the big data topic in the federal government.

WashingtonExec: How do you balance between publishing lots of content and making sure that your content is always relevant and interesting?

Bob Gourley: That’s a great question. I take lessons from my time in industry. At TRW, the view was that you want to be the best at building satellites. If you build them good enough the government will come to you for them, no matter what. So you hire the best people, invest in the best R&D, design the best satellites, and all that discriminates you so you win the business. The same lessons of seeking differentiation apply elsewhere. We run a tiny blog but I want that to be differentiated. If we publish three articles a day that add value, that’s terrific. If we go a week without publishing except for one article that adds incredible value – that’s terrific. We’re about adding value not how much we post. So I work with the best writers and focus on topics others can’t touch.

Our team of writers, including senior technology analysts Ryan Kamauff and Alex Olesker and a long list of guest bloggers, all focus on their own differentiation as well. Ryan tends to write more about hot consumer technologies that have an impact on enterprises. Alex tends to write more about analytical tools, Big Data and advanced cyber solutions.

WashingtonExec: What did you learn in government that has helped you as a private sector CTO?

Bob Gourley: I joke around and I say it’s a little like being in the mafia – you can never really leave the government. Once you’ve been in they keep you in. They bring you in for studies, assessments, panels and advisory boards – I really enjoy that kind of thing. I like the camaraderie and the espirit de corps; I like the big missions of government and I like seeing people do incredibly well. A lot of folks that make the transition out of a government career into industry I believe have similar feelings – you want to contribute and make sure that things progress in government.

WashingtonExec: Why do you think we’ve seen this big explosion of government needing big data products? Data mining has been around for awhile.

Bob Gourley: As long as there have been computers there has been data. A certain group of data scientists started using the term big data to describe a new approach focused on making better use of all of your data, not just for business intelligence but for asking any question. This requires new designs. It requires things like Apache Hadoop. It requires things like commodity hardware used at scale and a lot of other specific capabilities. When these technologists and architects and designers use the term big data that’s what they are referring to. People should not use that term to just mean large quantities of information or doing business the old way.

WashingtonExec: Why do you think we are seeing this new trend of the government now keeping track of unstructured data and social media trends?

Bob Gourley: It is the area where data is growing the most. When data is generated by machine you think the machine generated data is going to be all structured. The growth of video and images – there’s some structure there. There’s metadata on top of the images that has structure but the images themselves are just full of unstructured information. Part of it is the need because that’s where the massive quantities of data are is in this unstructured information. Also you want to do analysis over things important to human beings and the humans are good at generating this unstructured information.


“I think a growing important field is on the ethics of big data and there’s multiple elements of that. I think that every one of us citizens should be interested in but especially those of us who deal with the federal government should be interested in.”


WashingtonExec: Do you think that current cyber security standards . . . do you think current laws need to be updated?

Bob Gourley: I think a growing important field is on the ethics of big data and there’s multiple elements of that. I think that every one of us citizens should be interested in but especially those of us who deal with the federal government should be interested in. A thought leader in this domain named Kord Davis has written severalposts at CTOVision for us on the ethics of big data including topics like identity, your reputation in the age of big data and also the ethics around data ownership and data identity and IP addresses. For example is an IP address traceable to human beings and therefore does it deserve the privacy a person deserves? These are ethical issues that I believe all citizens should be interested in but especially people around the federal government. With some of these big data solutions we can inadvertently threaten some of the privacies that our citizens expect if we are not extremely careful.

WashingtonExec: For example, do you have a banking app on your phone? I have one, should I delete it?

Bob Gourley: I do not and I’m not sure that I ever will. If I do have a banking app it will be for one account where I don’t have much money and much of an exposure to it. I can already say there is a risk there. Questions you should ask yourself: did that app collect any information on your location? Since it is your bank if you use your bankcard at that grocery store will they know what you buy? There are big data solutions that could actually get a little bit creepy. That’s the kind of thing that I think we as citizens need to think through and as a society need to figure out how we are going to deal with this.

WashingtonExec: How do you see big data in things like predictive analytics changing the way the IT community operates? Do you think this is a major trend?

Bob Gourley: What is that next big thing? Guys in my community were talking about cloud computing a decade ago. We were talking about big data four years ago. What are we talking about right now because it is going to be widespread in the next couple of years? I’m not exactly sure, my crystal ball doesn’t always work but I think the next thing after big data is big analysis. That remains to be seen of course but the point I’m trying to make is that this is not the end of history, things will continue.

WashingtonExec: What is your Twitter bio?

Bob Gourley: My Twitter bio is extremely short. I say that I’m a CTO. I then go on to say where you can find me – you can find me at CTOVision. I also say that national security, cyber security, enterprise IT and technology are key topics of interest. That’s kind of me in a Twitter nutshell.

WashingtonExec: What is something most people might not know about you?

Bob Gourley: Most people probably don’t know that I was a bartender all through college and that’s where I learned how important it is to connect with people.

WashingtonExec: What is your favorite application? What application do you find most useful on your phone or on your tablet?

Bob Gourley: Chrome is the best application in the world. With Chrome you can do anything; it connects you to the web and it can help you find any application that you need.

WashingtonExec: What made you want to start the big data solutions awards? How can people apply?

Bob Gourley: This is an annual award. It’s been around two years and it is designed to highlight the successes of government organizations in big data solutions. The key point is we think by highlighting the successes we can share their lessons learned with others across government. It is so easy to apply. You just go to and there is a nomination form. We would definitely appreciate hearing from anybody who has a nomination to make there.

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