Distrust in the public sector is at an all-time high.
At the same time that Americans share “Which Downton Abbey Character Are You?” quizzes with the world—offering their personal data to the private sector—a record number of others refuse to answer government surveys and scare off census workers.
The disconnect endangers the health of our democracy. The United States government houses a massive data set, and utilizing it in a transparent and ethical manner is vital to our economy, our environment and our overall well-being as a society.
The Logic Behind Political Data Silos
How can big data make a big difference in our government and our society?
If allowed to be analyzed, information already collected could offer accurate, impartial answers to questions of income and unemployment, resource usage and transportation patterns, as well as a more granular understanding of conditions having an impact on public health. In 2013, for example, two economists used otherwise off-limits IRS data to determine which US cities offered the best chance of transcending a low-income situation and joining the middle class.
President Obama’s latest budget has a proposal to expand access to public data to assist with these very issues. However, there are many legal, political and bureaucratic hurdles in order to make that leap.
History offers good reason for caution.
The government has traditionally been unreliable in disclosing what information it gathers on its own citizens and has harshly punished whistleblowers who have brought this data into the public eye. The Privacy Act of 1974 attempted to limit governmental overreach, but legislators hastily passed it in reaction to the wiretapping-driven Watergate Scandal, failing to set it up to keep pace with technological advances.
Bureaucratic difficulties and varying standards between government agencies also present a substantial challenge to the integration of data sets for the public’s benefit. Agencies compile data for their own uses, not for easy integration with other sets. Collection methods and storage vary from state to state and bureaucrats are notoriously protective of their own territories.
If agencies were to open up those data silos, and properly analyze and correlate data, the government could draw interesting new inferences, and base policy on real-life statistics in addition to personal experience.
Bringing the People On Board
Lawmakers could update legislation, and integrate bureaucracies. The most significant hurdle to reaping the benefits of big data, however, involves overcoming the psychological and political backlash of American citizens.
The only solution is radical transparency.
Big data can provide better information, enabling better policies for the nation as a whole economically, environmentally and educationally. In order for that to be accomplished , Americans must be confident that their country is acting in good faith and with full accountability.
Ironically, the only time private industry is forced to reveal their data sets is when one is breached.
Government must go well beyond the standards of the private sector, ensuring that citizens can determine how and when agencies collect their information and to what extent it will be used. People already accept the practice in the private sector because they can see tangible benefits in the transaction.
A business may collect and profit from a consumer’s data - but it can also provide targeted movie recommendations and discounts on desired products and services.
Policy-driven big data collection by government agencies is decidedly less sexy, but more important by magnitudes. Agencies must educate consumers on the benefits of research and statistics, but ultimately only radical transparency will build the trust needed to construct better policies built on better data.
Marius Moscovici is the Founder & CEO of Metric Insights. Follow Marius on Twitter: @MetricInsights
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