What Should Government’s Role Be in the World of Big Data?


For folks in the Big Data community, there are some recent developments in Washington, D.C. that are worth paying attention to. On May 1, the Obama administration released a long-awaited report,  Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Data, that looks at Big Data’s potential to impact people’s day-to-day lives and change the dynamics between citizens, businesses and government. The 90-day study was presented by two heavy-hitters: Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Counselor to the President John Podesta, so there’s some intellectual weight behind the report.

The first paragraph pretty much sums up the dynamic that anyone working in Big Data sees in the trenches every day:

“We are living in the midst of a social, economic, and technological revolution. How we communicate, socialize, spend leisure time, and conduct business has moved onto the Internet. The Internet has in turn moved into our phones, into devices spreading around our homes and cities, and into the factories that power the industrial economy. The resulting explosion of data and discovery is changing our world.”

The report describes some of the potential benefits of Big Data. It calls on governments of all sizes, for instance, to take steps to embrace systems that allow them to tap into data to better serve citizens. And the report highlights some impressive ways that harnessing data can help people. One example is geospatial technology company Esri’s real-time map that tracks the paths of violent storms to speed emergency responses to affected areas. Just about anyone would agree that uses like that represent a clear win and demonstrate why many of us are so optimistic about Big Data.

From there, though, the report raises a critical question: What is the proper role for government in this emerging world of Big Data? It’s an important question, and the report doesn’t so much as answer it as attempt to start a conversation around it. If the government is starting to talk about its role, everyone else in the Big Data community should be thinking about just what the answer can and should be. Clearly, as more and more data is collected, there is the concern of a backlash from consumers who worry increasingly about privacy issues and become suspicious about how their data is being used, and by whom. And nobody wants that.

At the same time, there is the worry that too many restrictions from the government could hamper the evolution of an incredibly promising field that holds enormous potential. A statement from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation captures some of that fear:

“Overall, the report is a reminder that the opportunities from data are vast and unprecedented and, contrary to some press reports, the impact of big data is not all ‘doom and gloom.’ The Administration should be commended for recognizing opportunities to advance data-driven innovation, but the report is a reminder that we have a long way to go before Washington gets over its fear of big data.”

To be clear, there doesn’t seem to be an imminent move to introduce or pass a massive set of new regulations. But the report is a sign that Big Data and privacy has gotten the attention of politicians. Everyone who works in this area, then, should be tuned into the national debate and thinking about the kind of roles they’d like to see government play.

Image credit: U.S. Federal Government

Posted in Big Data by Lisa Petrucci

Lisa Petrucci is Vice President of Dun & Bradstreet Global Alliances and Partnerships.

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