Having access to timely and accurate data will be key to agencies embracing the vision lawmakers outlined in the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). The ultimate goal is to improve how the government buys and manages nearly $90 billion worth of IT.
But part of the issue for many agencies is they are inundated with data and unable to parse through that information and glean insights about IT spending and cost savings across their organizations. The law requires that agencies, particularly CIOs, have an over- all picture of the IT budget, which is not the case for many IT executives today.
“They’re trying to pull that information together,” said Heather Gittings, Director of Public Sector Market Development at Qlik, a visual analytics software company. “At the same time, they’re bombarded with data requests from other offices, and they’re not resourced properly to meet all of those requests.”
It doesn’t help that FITARA is an unfunded mandate, which means agencies have to pull from their limited budgets to fund IT transformation projects. The vast majority of government systems are legacy, and a number of the tools they use to analyze data are not robust enough to keep pace with growing demands. “When it comes to analytics, they’re often working with outdated business intelligence systems that aren’t nimble enough to empower them to answer key questions,” Gittings said.
Any delays in gathering that insight impacts the flow of information to other departments that need it. When those reports are finally delivered, the information is often outdated. Another issue is that too often the data is not trusted.
One of the main reasons is the source of the data isn’t reliable. Here’s why: When people search for information and they can’t get it from their agency’s enterprise reporting software, they collect it on their own from various data sources and store it in Excel documents and disparate databases. That’s an age old problem.
“What’s relatively new is that we’re seeing that same issue on a visualization scale as well,” Gittings said. “Everybody wants to see their data represented in a picture. To accomplish that, some are using these lightweight visualization tools that sit on the desktop. The problem is that as soon as they import the data, it becomes disconnected from its source. So now that data’s not centrally governed and you end up with multiple versions of the data.”
People are taking the data and dumping it into these stand-alone tools that are not connected to established data sources, so everyone’s looking at different versions of the data. They’re still able to manipulate the data into visually appealing displays, but those visualizations only provide a partial — and often inaccurate — version of the story.
“We call that visualization anarchy,” Gittings said. “Nobody trusts the data anymore, and you don’t have a single view of the truth.”
So how should agencies address this issue? For starters, Gittings recommends that agencies make data governance a priority and consider embedding those policies into the tools they use.
For example, the visual analytics software that Qlik provides is built around the principle of data governance and scalability. Although the software is so easy to use that it empowers non-technical employees with self-service analytics, the IT department still has control over the underlying datasets to ensure they are accurate and updated.
“This way you don’t end up with visualization anarchy because everyone is using the same, centrally managed data,” Gittings said. “Because the data is governed, organizations have a curated data set that they can trust. So while everybody’s creating their own views, they’re built on the same underlying foundation.”
Agencies should also invest in tools that are scalable. Many of the lightweight tools on the market today don’t scale, Gittings noted. They’re great for developing nice pictures on the desktop, but if you need to connect multiple data sources or connect to something like Hadoop, then the tools break down.
“Qlik was built to address that challenge,” Gittings said. “We’re helping agencies gain insight into their operations through visual analytics. We help them reduce the burden on IT and ensure that IT has control of the data while also allowing end users to manipulate the data and get answers to their questions.”
As agencies continue to fully implement FITARA, strong data analytics tools can help them address requirements to catalog and track IT investments and access and share information across their organizations.
“CIOs need the ability to see cross-function investments and know, for example, what software HR is invested in and what procurement software is being used,” Gittings said. “Robust analytics that can dive into and extract meaning from all those different data sources is key to FITARA’s success.”