James Petter, Vice President and Country Manager for the UK and Ireland, EMC shares his thoughts on how the public sector is approaching the big data challenge.
Big data is a term which has been thrown around in recent years, but essentially it is an evolving expression that describes any voluminous amount of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data that has the potential to be mined for information.
In my view, the real crux of whether something is big data or not is the ability to make decisions based on data insights, in real time. It’s the holy grail for most organisations – be they private or public sector – and could open the door to new revenue streams and stronger customer insights.
I was recently asked to give evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee as part of its inquiry into social media data and real time analytics. I believe there are already great examples of what can be done in government through better use of data, but the reality is that we’re only scratching the surface. And it’s not just something for consideration by central government. Local authorities could benefit significantly from projects already in place and through implementing schemes on the ground to improve citizen services, streamline processes, better understand their working environment and save costs in the process.
A year ago in his Autumn Statement to Parliament, the Chancellor recognised big data as an area that warrants additional research and development funds in order to strengthen the UK’s competitive advantage. However, little seems to have changed on the ground in recent months. So where are the biggest opportunities across all areas of the public sector?
There are some pockets of innovation and good practice across UK government already, with some departments beginning to explore how they might apply big data analytics, and the benefits this could bring. Notable progress is being made in the healthcare arena, and I am also aware that other departments like the Ministry of Justice, HMRC and the Ministry of Defence, are examining the potential. But, there is certainly plenty of scope to take things further and faster across the whole of government.
For local government on the frontline of citizen services, big data represents a huge opportunity. Particularly around understanding citizen priorities and how healthcare and benefit payments in particular could be better allocated.
So what can and should be done now? In my view, the government could do more to help create a market for big data analysis by using its own data sets more creatively to transform services to benefit citizens and taxpayers. Government should also do more to support innovation by pooling, sharing and linking public and external data sources, and encourage collaboration, knowledge and skill sharing within and across government, as well as external bodies.
Local government also has a role to play, particularly in ensuring its data is captured and stored in a secure and accessible way and that insights are being gleaned from this data in order to make decisions around citizen services and internal processes. Small steps to maximise data insights now will ensure that local authorities are better placed to sync up with big data developments as they roll out across the public sector in the years to come. Those who make steps to prepare themselves now will be far better placed to succeed in the coming months and years.
The public sector is in danger of being outpaced in terms of its ability to handle and exploit big data. Clear leadership and a willingness to adopt a culture of change are needed if big data is to achieve its great potential, and this is true across all areas of government, both at a central and local level. Technology is no longer simply a back-office function and big data is something which we all need to be prepared to adopt, or risk missing out on the positive financial, operational and citizen opportunities which it presents.