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Three Reasons why Big Data isn't as scary as it seems

By Nick O'Day, Chief Data Officer, City of Johns Creek

Nick O'Day, Chief Data Officer, City of Johns Creek

Big data is all the rage in technology circles these days. We hear the stories about how tech titans use it to drive revenue, deliver customized experiences, and develop solutions we don’t know we need but can’t live without. Unfortunately, most governments haven’t yet harnessed this transformative wave because of a lack of understanding about what big data really is and what it can be used to do. Here are three reasons why big data isn’t as scary as it seems:

Fact 1: “Big” data doesn’t always mean “huge” data. For the handful of large counties and cities in the United States, big data truly is big. Often datasets for simple things like 911 call volume can reach into the tens of millions or more per year. Yet, for those of us that don’t work for a large municipality (which represent around 90 percent of the US population), 911 call volume might “only” reach into the tens of thousands for the year. Does this make data from a smaller municipality data any less significant? No. Big data is relative to the size of a municipality and its underlying population and asset base. Just because your municipality doesn’t have a population over a million people, doesn’t mean that your data is any less valuable. In fact, smaller datasets can sometimes deliver better, hyper-local insights that might get lost in a larger pile of data.

Fact 2: Data can’t make its own conclusions. Just as a car doesn’t drive you around without input (even autonomous cars require input), big data can’t derive its own insights without guidance. You’re in control. Actionable insights that will change how your government operates come from analyzing data to see what story it tells you. If your task is to understand how changes in assessed value of property affect owners filing appeals, you need to define a clear hypothesis: As growth in assessed value increases, so does the likelihood of a property owner filing an appeal against tax bill. The clearer you are about what you want to test for, the better your methods will be for analyzing your big data, the easier you can communicate your findings to decision-makers.

Fact 3: Big data isn’t scarce or unique to only a few municipalities. Every time a citizen interacts with a service, data is created. Each business license application creates a record that tracks where a business is, what is being sold, and more. Data is also available to municipalities from private industry. The Connected Citizens Program through Waze is a free, two-way data sharing program that gives cities a wealth of raw data related to traffic jams and incident reports. Good insights can be derived from any singular source of data, but great insights can be found when different sources of data are compared to one another.

"Just as a car doesn’t drive you around without input (even autonomous cars require input), big data can’t derive its own insights without guidance"

Big data holds the promise of helping governments improve service delivery and reduce inefficiencies, but only if we use it. As demand for services and their corresponding costs, analyzing big data to squeeze the most out of municipal budgets will become mainstream. Intuition will only get us part of the way to the solution. It’s government’s turn to start using big data and analytics to fine tune our operations and start delivering ever more prompt and efficient services to our customers.

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