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Big data might mean big savings for federal government

Paul Newman

July 12, 2013

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In the corporate world, big data plays a role every day in helping businesses improve their bottom lines. By gathering information about their customers and using it to craft finely-tuned marketing campaigns that target key demographics, companies can develop sound strategies for generating more profits.

The benefits of data analysis extend far beyond the private sector, however. In the private sphere, the possibility of using more data is equally compelling. Potentially, using data-driven analytical strategies could save the federal government a large amount of money.

According to FCW, those savings could total up to half a trillion dollars. That was the conclusion reached by Meritalk, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that provides IT services for the federal government, when it polled 150 federal IT executives this year. According to the firm's survey data, using big data to eliminate government inefficiencies would lead to a 14 percent reduction in the nation's $3.54 trillion federal budget, meaning a cut of approximately $500 billion per year.

Rich Campbell, chief technologist at EMC Federal, underwrote the Meritalk report, entitled "The Smarter Uncle Sam: The Big Data Forecast." The report summarized the opinions of the IT executives surveyed, who generally agreed that the government could cull insights from analyzing large sets of data, even when they sometimes appear unrelated.

"When they look at how they are using data and how it could be used in all these kinds of fields, there are a significant amount of dollars that can be saved there," Campbell wrote. "The data analysis of trends and allocation of resources is at a much more molecular level now than ever before, and the potential is becoming more realized on a day-by-day basis. We're seeing more use cases and newer technologies, and the government is moving ahead and tackling the low-hanging fruit out there right now."

According to Campbell's report, data can bring about improvements in the public sector in a couple of areas.

Improving transportation
State and local transit authorities pour large amounts of funding every year into public transportation. They work tirelessly to keep trains and buses on time, helping employees get to work and students get to school each day. By using more data, they could improve their strategies. Do traffic patterns dictate necessary scheduling changes? Are some routes being overused, or others underused? Are transit authorities improperly allocating resources by putting too many vehicles in one area and not enough in another? Data can answer all these questions.

Preventing fraud
Hefty sums of money are wasted every year by fraudulent government officials. Some embezzle money from public coffers, while others cleverly make off with funds through schemes like phony travel expense reports. Analyzing data on how each public official uses his or her budget could be beneficial. If the government finds any irregularities, they might be signs of something fishy happening, and public officials could take steps to prevent further instances of fraud.

Now is an especially urgent time for the government to do more to trim its budget. As Government Executive recently noted, the sequester is still taking its toll on federal funds - the Department of Defense is considering civilian reductions in 2014 in order to meet its stringent demands, and other federal, state and local bodies are battling money troubles.

More data collection is key, and ensuring data quality is paramount as well. The government needs to collect more information before it can draw any meaningful conclusions about the future, but further, the public sector also needs to make sure its existing stockpiles of data contain information that's verified and actionable. Data holds the key to a stronger federal government in the years ahead, but that data must be pure.

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