Aug 01 2013

Big Data Can Help the Federal Government Move Mountains. Here's How.

Agencies are starting to make use of the massive quantities of data they produce.

A torrent of data is flowing through agency information systems like never before. As federal systems collect medical files, satellite images, video, financial records, social media and all sorts of other information, managers find themselves sitting on mountains of data. They’re also finding that if they can use this data strategically, they can accomplish things that previously have been unattainable.

Scientific agencies are finding links that were impossible to see before. Medical researchers are discovering new treatments for deadly diseases. Law enforcement units are tracking down criminals who in the past might have gotten away.

But accomplishing these feats takes far more than simply accumulating massive quantities of data.

“Making sense of these volumes of Big Data requires cutting-edge tools and ­technologies that can analyze and extract useful knowledge from vast and diverse streams of information,” Tom Kalil and Fen Zhao of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy wrote in a post on the OSTP Blog.

A Big Step in the Right Direction


of federal IT professionals expect Big Data to help government work smarter.

SOURCE: Smarter Uncle Sam: The Big Data Forecast (MeriTalk, 2013)

The White House took a step toward helping agencies find these technologies when it established the National Big Data Research and Development Initiative in 2012. The initiative included more than $200 million to make the most of the explosion of Big Data and the tools needed to analyze it.

The challenges that Big Data poses are nearly as daunting as its promise is encouraging. Storing data efficiently is one of these challenges. As always, budgets are tight, so agencies must minimize the per-megabyte price of storage and keep the data within easy access so that users can get it when they want it and how they need it. Backing up massive quantities of data heightens the challenge.

Analyzing the data effectively is another major challenge. Many agencies employ commercial tools that enable them to sift through the mountains of data, spotting trends that can help them operate more efficiently. (A recent study by MeriTalk found that federal IT executives think Big Data could help agencies save more than $500 billion while also fulfilling mission objectives.)

Custom-developed Big Data tools also are allowing agencies to address the need to analyze their data. For example, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s ­Computational Data Analytics Group has made its Piranha data analytics system available to other agencies. The system has helped medical researchers find a link that can alert doctors to aortic aneurysms before they strike. It’s also used for more mundane tasks, such as sifting through résumés to connect job candidates with hiring managers.

In addition to dealing with storage and analysis challenges, IT leaders also must consider the problems that could arise from misuse of their data. Privacy and security must be first-tier priorities as agencies dive into Big Data.

Maximum Volume

The challenges to maximizing the use of Big Data are great, but the opportunities it opens are even greater. The White House initiative is a good first step, but agencies must mobilize. Several federal projects have established a path that others can follow to make the most of these opportunities. When they invest in technologies to help them deal with the massive piles of data they are creating, agencies may find that they can move mountains.

Sergey Nivens/Thinkstock

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