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June 13, 2013

The Intersection of Public Policy and Big Data

Alex Woodie

When big data collides with big government, the sparks can fly, as evident by last week’s disclosure of the NSA’s massive data collection and mining operation, dubbed PRISM. But governments can also use big data to positively impact the lives of its citizens, as Google senior policy analyst Jess Hemerly recently explained.

The practice of data-driven innovation–or the practical application of big data and actual results that can be generated by analyzing big data–is beginning to take hold at many levels of government, Hemerly says in a recent video.

Data-driven innovation can range from “people using algorithms to create new forms of analysis and models,” she says, to “the way the government and policy makers are starting to take a look at their own data–the data that they generated in their basic function–and coming up with better ways to make things more efficient.”

One public practitioner of data-driven innovation is the city of New York. Hemerly says the Big Apple has been at the forefront of data-driven innovation in the way it  “takes different data sources from across the city, pieces them together, and models things in ways to actually improve the processes” in areas like public service response times or the distribution of licenses.

There is a big potential for citizens to benefit from data-driven innovation stemming from data collected and maintained by the government. However, there are several sticky issues that need to be worked out regarding the security of that data, and ownership and privacy concerns. “What we need to do is figure out ways that we can reasonably distinguish what could and should be open, and what could and should be private,” Hemerly says. “We can also think about licensing models…Some governments do use licensing models for their data.”

There is also the fact that, in most cases, the data was not originally collected with the intent of using it for some unknown future analysis. However, that shouldn’t be a deal breaker. “It’s difficult to provide consent for an activity that’s yet to be known,” Hemerly says. “Trying to navigate that landscape can be very tricky. I think that that’s one example where old paradigms are being challenge by a new landscape for data.”

Considering all these concerns, a blanket mandate for open data is probably not the best approach. Instead, the government should look at “finding ways to encourage and create incentives for agencies to actually open up data and make it available, in machine readable ways, so that it can be used and reused,” she says. “Doing that has the potential to create a kind of civic engagement so that people can understand their government better or interact with products and services that their government provides.”

In the video, Hemerly was interviewed by Katina Michael of the University of Wollongong in Australia, where Hemerly expanded on her recent article “Public Policy Considerations for Data-Driven Innovation.”

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