"Big data is going to be the next big thing". This is not just industry commentary but the view expressed by Jos Creese, CIO of Hampshire County Council, during his keynote address at the SOCITM 2012 annual conference in Birmingham a few weeks ago.
It certainly seems that local government in the UK is starting to wake up to the potential of big data and a number of presentations at the conference focused on demonstrating the current ‘art of the possible’ and the new insights that big data analytics can provide to local government policy makers.
The recently released IDC Digital Universe study ‘Big Data, a Bigger Digital Shadows, and Biggest Growth in the Far East’ suggests that only a fraction of the world’s Big Data potential is being realized, though the amount of useful data is expanding. The UK is certainly not isolated from this global trend and it places further emphasis on the need to seriously address the opportunities presented by big data analytics from a public sector perspective.
Big data was the topic of a recent round table discussion on the recommendations made in the Policy Exchange report ‘The Big Data Opportunity’ published in July. Margaret Hodge, who is Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, spoke at the event and welcomed calls for broader and better use of big data, but labeled existing data-sharing practices "deeply frustrating". She also cautioned that big data would not be able to reach its potential without improvements in collaboration between departments.
This was echoed by James Petter, VP for EMC UK & Ireland, who warned that 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. This calls for a Chief Data Officer to take charge, identify the opportunity and then drive it from the centre"' he said.
Chris Yiu, Head of Policy Exchange's Digital Government Unit and author of the report on Big Data, said, "To make the most of Government data sets the capability factor is the most problematic".
He went on to say that "what you don't find in training is a track for data scientists, with a focus on how to tell a compelling story and visualise it. The Government needs to get behind an advanced analytics team that can bring in the right skills, likely to come from the private sector and give them the remit to explore the opportunity, educate senior government leadership, and get this conversation on to Board-level agendas, from here you can go into mainstream".
So leadership and skills are the key discriminating factor in powering the UK’s growth into a big data enabled world. More specifically from a public sector perspective, the leadership that the appointment of a Chief Data Officer would bring to Government and the establishment of an advanced data analytics team empowered to drive both collaboration across departments and ‘pull’ in the data science supply chain, are clear holes in the Government’s strategy on big data!
Last week I heard Tim Kelsey, NHS National Director for Patients and Information, Rohan Silva, Senior Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister, and Neil O'Brien, Director of Policy Exchange and soon to be a Special Advisor to George Osborne, speak at an event on 'Using Health Data to Develop Better Treatments'. It was clear that Tim Kelsey is leading NHS thinking in the exploitation of the vast data reservoirs held by the UK health sector to drive new ways of delivering improved services. A similar type of big data leadership role needs to be developed by central government.
In his Autumn Statement to Parliament, the Chancellor recognised that big data is an area that warrants additional R&D funds in order to strengthen the UK's competitive advantage.
So big data seems to be creeping up the priority list for both the NHS and BIS. But there hasn't been the same progress in the heart of Government aimed at addressing the opportunities identified by Policy Exchange to save between £16bn - £33bn through the use of big data analytics techniques and improved collaboration between departments, as suggested by Margaret Hodge.
So, as is my tradition, I’ll leave you with a topical quote, this time from The Hobbit (courtesy of J R R Tolkien):