CQ WEEKLY – VANTAGE POINT
May 12, 2012 – 11:24 a.m.
Hit the Big Data Time
By Shawn Zeller, CQ Staff
Members of Congress most often hear about the massive amount of information that’s stored on government and industry computers when there is a security breach or when someone complains that personal information has been used without permission. The Obama administration, though, in alliance with technology companies, is trying to change the terms of the debate. In addition to privacy and cybersecurity, they say, lawmakers need to consider the potential value of all that information in making government more efficient.
“The fears are overstated, and perhaps the potential has not yet been realized,” Nuala O’Connor, senior counsel for information governance and chief privacy leader at General Electric, told Capitol Hill staff members at a briefing earlier this month sponsored by TechAmerica, a trade association for technology firms.
Tech experts call all the information that’s accumulating “big data,” and they say it’s ripe for harvesting by the government to, for example, improve the maintenance of military hardware or to reshape the health care system to reward the quality of care given rather than the quantity of procedures performed.
What analysts will have to learn to deal with is an explosion of data that now amounts to more than a yottabyte, the equivalent of one septillion bytes, or 1 followed by 24 zeroes. According to TechAmerica, 90 percent of that information has been produced in just the last two years, and the world’s data is now doubling every 18 months.
The challenge is that much of the data on government computer servers is unstructured — think of billions of bytes of satellite imagery and the results from particle accelerators or groundwater studies — and has to be organized and analyzed before it can be put to new uses.
In December 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report warning that the government wasn’t doing enough to harness all the data to its advantage. The administration responded this March with a $200 million initiative by six federal agencies, including the Pentagon, the Energy Department and the National Institutes of Health, to invest in the technology needed to analyze data and to train more analysts.
John P. Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, compared the effort to the government research that led to the creation of the Internet and said it promises to “transform our ability to use big data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education and national security.”
However, Bill Perlowitz, chief technology officer of the Science Technology & Engineering Group at government IT contractor Wyle, says both the government and industry remain at risk of missing out on opportunities to use big data, at least in the near term, because of the lack of skilled data analysts.
A 2011 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, an arm of the McKinsey consulting firm, quantified the deficit, saying the United States needs between 140,000 and 190,000 more engineers to work with big data, along with 1.5 million more data managers.
Part of the administration initiative aims to solve that problem. The National Science Foundation plans to work with universities to train more data scientists and engineers.
To deal with the flood of data, McKinsey said, lawmakers need to set clear privacy and data security standards so that companies and government agencies can move forward without fear of liability.
O’Connor adds that government needs to move past the notion that it can ban the collection of data and instead should set standards for its use that include making the data anonymous.
Hit the Big Data Time
“The more data people have, the more they know about you,” she says. The question is: “Do we have a robust enough enforcement regime around data use in this country to ensure consumer confidence?”
Industry clearly hopes to play a big role in setting the rules. This week, TechAmerica will introduce a commission of industry experts who will try to quantify the benefits of all the information out there, while offering advice to government on how to exploit it and still protect privacy and civil liberties.