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How much influence should data have in government?

Rachel Wheeler Archive

There's a general consensus that data quality can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the federal government. By gathering as much demographic and financial information as possible on the American people, some say, the government can glean valuable lessons that will help with everything from city planning to revamping social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

There's definitely some validity to this theory. By gathering as much information as possible on the populace and using address management tools to purify clusters of data and ensure their accuracy, public officials can certainly learn some lessons about the efficacy of government programs and initiatives. But there are limits to how influential data can be in the public sector. Officials who seek to bring data into the legislative process should proceed with caution, as there are shortcomings to be aware of.

Data can invade our privacy
While collecting data may seem like an efficient way of quickly gauging society's progress, officials should beware that some third-party collectors have begun resorting to ethically unsound means of researching the population. 1to1 Magazine recently reported that a Krux study revealed a marked increase in data gatherers pilfering information from social media and e-commerce sites without consumers' knowledge. The number of such third-party collectors has risen steadily over the last two years, the report found, from 168 different companies in 2011 to 300 in 2012 to 328 now.

It can discriminate against certain demographics, too notes that there's a serious risk of government officials using big data to isolate individual demographic groups - including people of certain races, genders and ages - and discriminate against them. Data analysis expert Alistair Croll told the news source that data can be used to tailor different prices to different minority groups, a frowned-upon process known as "redlining."

There's more to public policy than numbers
It's also important to note that data, no matter how big, will never be able to show the whole picture. Government officials deal with countless topics - among them consumer spending trends, worker productivity and even terrorism - that are often based in irrational whims and impossible to measure through any kind of statistical analysis. If governments attempt to do so anyway, they may find false correlations in data, or they may waste time, money and manpower on futile efforts. Neither scenario is ideal.

Big data certainly has an application in government, but its scope may not be as wide as people think. Public servants should proceed with great care.