Oct 29 2013

ELC 2013: Federal CIOs Define Big Data

CIOs agree that Big Data can revolutionize government. But first, what is it?

As agencies grapple with Big Data to improve mission performance, one important aspect of the discussion is coming up with a definition for the term.

“When your data becomes larger than your traditional tools can process, that’s Big Data,” said Joe Klimavicz, CIO of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaking on a panel at the Executive Leadership Conference, sponsored by the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council.

NOAA compiles massive data sets from a variety of sensors such as satellites, weather balloons and other devices — 3.5 billion observations per day. The agency needs tools that can combine different data sets to come up with insights that aren’t otherwise apparent, Klimavicz added.

“You can’t just go down to Best Buy to get tools that can handle this data.”

Speaking on a panel with Klimavicz, Rob Bectel, chief technology officer for the Energy Department, said Big Data tools let agencies extend the reach of their data to solve problems. Bectel said it’s not enough to just compile the data; agencies must be able to understand it. Agencies should include descriptions with their data sets so users can find the data that’s relevant to them.

Roger Baker, chief strategy officer for Agilex and former CIO of the Veterans Affairs Department, warned that agencies should verify the quality of their data. The old IT maxim of “garbage in, garbage out” applies to Big Data.

Agencies must be able to use both structured and unstructured data to get the most out of their Big Data efforts. For example, Klimavicz noted that NOAA has long had airlines place sensors on their aircraft, which provides the agency with a large quantity of useful data such as altitude and wind speed. NOAA uses this data in combination with unstructured data from its satellites to improve weather forecasting.

In addition to mission functions such as NOAA’s weather forecasting, agencies also use Big Data to improve their mission support. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has used Big Data to improve its security posture, said Vaughn Noga, EPA’s acting deputy CIO. The possibilities that Big Data opens are vast, he said, stating, “I think we’re seeing the renaissance of the use of data.”