According to a recent GovLoop guide, “Big Data: Examining the Big Data Frontier,” 73 percent of surveyed public sector employees said they see big data as a viable tool for managing resources, budgets and cost. And 81 percent of respondents reported that big data has the capacity to improve decision-making.
Yet the mystique surrounding big data persists. That’s why GovLoop partnered with industry leaders Cloudera, MarkLogic and Software AG to host an in-person training event on big data here in Washington, D.C.
Wednesday’s event was designed to unpack the big data mystery, identify common big data challenges shared across agencies, and highlight a few key best practices for those looking to take their data to the next level.
For those who couldn’t make it, or for those who’d like a refresher, we’ve collected the top five insights about big data from yesterday’s proceedings.
1. Big Data: Don’t Get Hung Up on the Definition
Scribbled on a notecard by one of the event’s attendees, two questions encapsulated a sentiment shared by many in government:
“What is big data? How can it be applied to my agency?”
“You can go online and find endless definitions of big data and how it is being applied to agencies,” acknowledged Pat Fiorenza, Senior Research Analyst at GovLoop. During his presentation, Fiorenza illustrated this fact by highlighting three disparate definitions of big data from PC Magazine, the Method for an Integrated Knowledge Environment (MIKE) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST).
Essentially, said Fiorenza, the term big data represents a new way to process information. It will also transform the way we look at data to arrive at decisions. But it is important not to get caught up in the term itself – by focusing the ‘big-ness’ of your data, or attempting to segregate data operations between ‘old’ and ‘new.’
“I am often tempted to strip the ‘big’ off the term ‘big data’ and focus more on the goal of leveraging data to meet mission needs,” said Fiorenza. “Data is really a tool to transform your agency, and everybody is going to have a different size, different solutions. The real question we should be asking is, ‘how is data going to change your agency?’”
2. Business Users Need Their Big Data Party Invite
According to a number of yesterday’s speakers, a crucial first step to harnessing the power of your data is the involvement of the business side of operations. Herb Strauss, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Systems and Deputy Chief Information Officer at the Social Security Administration, argued that this goes all the way back to the language used among those in tech.
“We [IT departments] will use ‘big data’ interchangeably with business intelligence, and this confuses our customers,” said Strauss. “This is a big mistake for us. We need to speak in precise terms.”
This involvement is especially important because business owners hold the key to unlocking new use cases for big data projects. “With smaller budgets…it has become far more important to identify the tangible business benefits to get engagement,” explained Michael Doane, Technical Director at MarkLogic. Big data’s technical specifications will remain in IT, but its success will be defined by the benefits it delivers to those responsible for service delivery.
3. You Don’t Have to Start Over
A significant challenge in large government agencies is legacy systems, most of which were implemented long before big data was on anyone’s radar. “We’re not a start-up,” said Strauss, speaking of the Social Security Administration. “We’ve got about $12 billion sunk into our enterprise.
“As we change, we have to make sure that we can integrate capability into our enterprise in a way that works,” he added. This means leveraging the assets your already have and then augmenting it as you move forward.
4. Leadership Support Makes a Difference
A common refrain from panelists in government and industry was that leadership support is crucial to launching a big data project. In fact, it is vital for the success of most IT projects in general.
But it’s easier said than done. “The reality of the situation, at least in my world, is that [a big data project] costs money, it takes time and there aren’t immediate results,” explained LTC Bobby Saxon of the U.S. Army. “You have to convince people that there is real value here.”
To help his cause, LTC Saxon uses a lot of examples from the commercial sector that people can relate to, such as Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and the website Match.com – both of which use analytics to forecast future outcomes. “I also try to stay as focused as possible on the mission of the organization,” added LTC Saxon. “I don’t get into the technical weeds when I talk to senior leaders because, quite frankly, they don’t care about the technology I am using. What they care about is that they have challenges and whether I can help them solve those challenges.”
5. You Can Get Started. Here’s How
A big data project isn’t a trivial endeavor. And when we look at the program in its entirety, it looks too big to tackle. But panelists offered advice on how to begin your big data journey.
“Find the user who has a problem that needs solving. That’s really the place you should be starting,” advised Mark Livingston, Research Scientist at the Naval Research Lab.
“That’s the user who is going to use the system at the end. If you can say to that person, ‘This process is going to be better [with a big data solution],’ then you will get support from upper management,”
Stay tuned for more big data insights from the event in future posts. In the meantime, you can read the GovLoop guide, “Examining the Big Data Frontier,” and start thinking about the way you can use data to transform your agency today.
Presenter Slides from the Event
Social Insurance in the Age of Big Data, Herb Strauss, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Systems and Deputy Chief Information Officer, Social Security Information
Key Findings from the GovLoop Guide, Pat Fiorenza, Senior Research Analyst, GovLoop
Industry Insight I, Michael Doane, Technical Director, MarkLogic
Industry Insight II, Michael Ho, Vice President, Professional Services, Software AG
Event Sponsored by: