Government is at a crossroads in having the ability to process vast volumes of data, but too few executives who understand how to tap its potential, according to a report on “big data” released today.

The TechAmerica Foundation report offers recommendations for public policy, research and development, privacy issues and overcoming barriers based on government leaders who have established early successes in leveraging big data, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

While there have been other reports defining and describing the evolution of big data, “what’s different about this report, is it focuses on government and how big data can be put to work” to tackle problems such as improper payments, said Brian Reynolds, managing director, Global Public Sector, Grant Thornton, which participated in producing the report.

Perhaps the single most important point that emerged from the case studies, said Reynolds, that “while there are technologies that underpin the solutions,” the success of big data applications was in “understanding the business, or the problem that needed to be solved. I don’t think any of these solutions started with the notion that we were going to test big data, or find a use for big data.”

The report includes the following key recommendations:

  • PUBLIC POLICY. Consider annual reviews that incorporate performance metrics based on whether the use of value-added data collaboration activities would improve department and agency performance as well as promote data sharing and uptake of big data in every-day activities; expand upon requirements in the Digital Government Strategy to share and expose data assets of federal agencies to the public and private sector.
  • R&D. Continued and aggressive investment in big data beyond the Administration’s $200 million commitment as well as a national research and development strategy in order to further the development of new tools, economic models, and educational approaches to advancing Big Data uptake and utilization.
  • PRIVACY. Education and execution on the more than 40 laws that provide various forms of privacy protections concerning health and financial information as well as further guidance from OMB, and greater collaboration with industry and stakeholders, on applying privacy protections to current technology and cultural realities. Specifically, OMB should collaborate with industry and advocacy groups and issue additional guidance that addresses the understanding of privacy management obligations. Privacy guidance from OMB should be updated regularly to take into account the latest technologies, cultural attitudes and norms, and government needs. Fundamentally, any policy must be drafted carefully to enable both innovation and appropriate data protection.

When it comes to privacy, Reynolds pointed out that context matters.

“When we think of security and privacy issues, so much of what we call big data is voluntarily provided in one context, such as photos we post to Facebook, or Tweets,” he said. “But taken out of that context, the privacy concerns become quite different for many of us.”

Bethann Pepoli, CTO for State & Local and Education, EMC, said the report’s case studies serve as examples of big data’s power. Pepoli, who served with report commissioner Rich Campbell, said case studies for the report showed how big data can tackle Medicaid, employment and tax fraud using techniques to detect crime in real time.

Traditionally, when it comes to fraud detection, agencies have had to trace information threads after payments are already made to find where the fraud has been, and then try to get the money back. Now the use of big data analytics are helping to detect fraud before the payments are being made, she said.

Big data analytics are aiding cybersecurity as well, where analysts are “combining structured content with unstructured content, to create a comprehensive analytics approach to cyber crime,” she said.

One of the big challenges facing federal agencies, she said, revolve around sharing data and managing volume with an archiving strategy.

“There are lots of ways technology can enable data sharing, but the governance issues will really be the big challenge to implement a big data approach,” Pepoli said.

Additional barriers to achieving big data’s potential, according to the report, is the proliferation of contract vehicles, especially at the agency level.

“The process- and cost-intensive nature of the current contracting trend creates a barrier to industry vendors offering cutting edge solutions, and at the same time, it hinders federal government efforts to deploy big data capabilities in standard approaches across the landscape of disparate federal agencies,” the report states.

The report recommends avoiding big data contract vehicle duplication by promoting an express preference for the use of existing successful government-wide vehicles for big data solutions and use of the minimum number of buying vehicles necessary to fulfill its needs, including the Federal Supply Schedules program.