Investing in Data Skills to Reap Big Benefits from Big Data

This post was written by Karen Terrell, Vice President, SAS Federal

Federal agencies are starting to recognize the endless possibilities that big data can provide – improved health care and education; prevention of crime and cyberattacks; detection of fraud, waste and abuse; and better and safer transportation services. However, the rise of big data has led to big projects, big bucks and big challenges as agencies struggle to manage and analyze data efficiently.

One of the most critical challenges is the lack of analytics talent.

In February, the White House named DJ Patil as the first ever U.S. Chief Data Scientist, tasked with helping the government maximize its investments in big data. This recognition has led to a significant rise in the appointments of Chief Data Officers (CDOs) across departments and agencies in recent months. CDO appointments are critical to ensuring that big data is utilized to transform and improve the way government delivers services to the citizen.

While this is significant progress, many agencies are struggling to clearly express their big data and analytics talent needs and are largely overwhelmed when it comes to the requirements for data analysis expertise. The fact is that a major shortage of qualified staff exists – specifically business and data analysts, data scientists, engineers and data architects.

Big data projects demand data analytics skills, and it can be difficult to find talented business and data analysts, data scientists, engineers and data architects. This has consequences.

According to a 2014 GovLoop survey of nearly 300 public sector professionals, federal agencies often struggle to turn information into insight due to this critical workforce skills gap. The survey also found:

  • 96 percent identified a data skills gap at their agency
  • 55 percent doubted their agencies were actively addressing the data skills gap
  • 57 percent agree their agency still needs training in more advanced uses of data and analytics
  • Only four percent believe their agency is very effective in leveraging data

These sobering findings are probably a large reason why Gartner predicts that through 2017 about 60 percent of big data projects will fail to go beyond piloting and experimentation and will ultimately be abandoned.

Many educational opportunities exist for current and prospective federal employees to develop these skills. SAS offers free online training and software to anyone through SAS Analytics U. The new SAS Academy for Data Science offers valuable Big Data and Data Scientist credentials. Since 2008, when SAS helped launch the country’s first analytics masters program at North Carolina State University, the number of degree and certificate programs in analytics and related disciplines has skyrocketed. Many offer special deals for veterans.

The education and training opportunities exist, but in order for the federal government to be at the forefront of innovation and to effectively exploit big data, there needs to be a strong commitment to developing analytics skills government-wide. There is a real opportunity to make a difference, but until the federal community recognizes that specialized data requires specialized skills, the true value of analytics and the promise of a better, stronger, smarter and more competitive government will not be realized.



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