Insights & Ideas

What's Missing from The White House's Report on Big Data?

President Obama has another thing to read in bed at night.

His advisors have just published a report, Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values, which provides recommendations on how Big Data “can transform the way citizens live and work. “ The published work also goes into detail why Big Data is important, how public and private sectors can exploit it and much more.

To be honest, there isn’t anything groundbreaking in the report you can’t find from other sources, but one of the biggest drivers of conducting the study was the controversy surrounding data privacy, brought to everyone’s attention by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s snooping over the past few years.

(What would be perhaps more interesting is to read a report from the NSA on the technology they have developed in partnership from the private sector and how it could be used to create value for the country….but I suspect we’ll have to wait years for this juicy read.)

Compiled by John Podesta, White House counsellor, the report relies on a number of footnotes to substantiate the authors’ aim of validating the importance of Big Data for benefactors ranging from government organizations to private citizens.

What is interesting is how Podesta wraps American values into the report with wording such as:

“Since the earliest days of President Obama’s first term, this Administration has called on both the public and private sector to harness the power of data in ways that boost productivity, improve lives, and serve communities. That said, this study is about more than the capabilities of big data technologies. It is also about how big data may challenge fundamental American values and existing legal frameworks. This report focuses on the federal government’s role in assuring that our values endure and our laws evolve as big data technologies change the landscape for consumers and citizens.”

It all makes me question what changes will take place in the future – changes that may infringe on the rights of individual Americans.

What I find missing from the report is how the private sector can actively get involved in helping the government at all levels (federal, state and local) exploit data.

Innovation from Big Data will come from companies that have the deep resources, expertise and appetite to take risks. However, they will do so only if they can see the financial benefits from partnering with government.

I propose the government -starting with federal agencies - explore changing procurement rules so government leaders have the flexibility (within reason, of course) to work with companies so the risk-reward ratio is beneficial to all parties.

In other words, instead of regulating governments to build or buy expensive Big Data-ready technologies, they should be given the opportunity to engage companies that will offer technology for free – or heavily discounted – in return for access to the volumes of big data just sitting in IT systems. The company would then be given a three year one-off license (like a pharmaceutical) of time to transform and make the most out of the data before it is returned to the government for immediate and wider open use by the public.

It is important to point out that, from our experience of having worked with many multinationals, a lot of economic value can come from Big Data, without needing to use personal information. In simple terms, there are no privacy concerns or objections that should get in the way of data-centric public-private partnerships.

Big Data analytics is a game-changer for government that can benefit society as a whole, but the challenge is making the game worthwhile to those that can make the change happen. Innovation will only come as a result of close partnerships with private sector companies.

So, instead of producing a policy paper on Big Data, I would like to see the White House facilitate and support meaningful conversations, coupled with practical working groups, between government and business leaders so we can all turn Big Data into big value for the benefit of American taxpayers.

Our clients