The U.S. federal government, one of the largest generators of data in the world, recently developed a data strategy and is now enacting policies to elevate data to a strategic asset.
As with any organization, the U.S. government faces challenges as it works to make better use of its data. It must build the technology infrastructure; identify, organize and catalog the data it has; digitize the data; create an analytics-ready environment and develop a culture that values data.
“You have to be able to operationalize that data or you don’t get the value from it. And that’s very difficult for any organization to do, not just the federal government,” said Steve Kearney, medical director for SAS Institute.
The expectation, according to several experts, is that the government can build the infrastructure, procedures and mindset needed to more fully utilize and share open data sets amassed by the numerous federal agencies and departments.
“It sounds like a paperwork exercise, but it actually ensures that people are all moving in the same direction for using data,” said Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, a trade association advocating for responsible policies to make government data high-quality, accessible and useable.
What is federal open data?
Efforts to make U.S. open data accessible have been spurred by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, a 2018 law requiring the government to modernize its data management policies. This law also includes a section requiring the General Services Administration to maintain a federal data catalog with public access to agency data.
Federal agencies have already published 36% more data sets as part of their data inventories during the second quarter versus the first quarter of 2020, with the agencies publishing 130,655 data sets — 96% of which are accessible to the public.
One of the goals, according to the September 2020 President’s Management Agenda, is to enable researchers, businesses and the American public to use U.S. open data.
It’s an initiative that mirrors the work happening in organizations across all sectors, from small nonprofits to the largest corporations, which are also seeking to increase access to and the use of data to drive decisions.
But the work within the U.S. government is at a scale that dwarfs efforts elsewhere. Monumental data collection efforts, such as the population figures gathered by the U.S. census, satellite images taken by NASA and public health numbers related to COVID-19, have created a vast, yet disparate, trove of data.
The data is also immensely valuable, said Monica McEwen, vice president of public sector at ThoughtSpot, a business intelligence and analytics company. McEwen is also an advisor to the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center and part of the Data Coalition.
As the federal program becomes more formalized and sharing increases, the hope is that federal officials and nongovernment entities will use federal open data to generate actionable insights and solutions to intractable problems.
“We’re really starting to see federal agencies understand how data can be used as an asset,” McEwen said. “It’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen. Data sharing had not been prevalent in the federal government, but it’s now being seen as a shared asset.”
Use cases for federal data
The cultural shift happening around data and data sharing at the federal level has already led to multiple U.S. open data use cases that demonstrate the importance of the government’s new data strategy.
1. Better evaluation of policies and programs
Although the government has always had some ability to assess its programs, access to more data in general and an increased ability to share data across government entities has improved its ability to determine whether — and to what extent — programs and policies work, Hart said.
He pointed to an analysis of data from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development and other areas that concluded public housing was better at reducing lead exposure in children than private housing.
2. Increased accountability and transparency
“By sharing information as open data, the American public can help assess what’s happening in government, and the government can communicate back to the public on how it’s doing,” Hart said.
While the public can access federal open data sets through Data.gov, businesses can also access the data and use it to educate the public on their own. For example, USAFacts, a nonprofit initiative, uses federal data to create different data visualizations of federal demographic, spending and revenue information as a means to inform the American public on the state of the country.
3. Insights for entities outside of government
Businesses have long used census data to help them make decisions about opportunities tied to demographic shifts, while private and nonprofit entities have similarly analyzed economic and labor data to drive their agendas.
Ian McCulloh, managing director and chief data scientist at Accenture Federal Services, said nongovernmental organizations — from research institutions to corporations to charities — can expect access to more data and to more easily access data sets due to the government’s work on providing federal open data. This could lead to more insights and inspiration.
For example, healthcare organizations could analyze data from the Department of Health and Human Services and the census to more accurately anticipate the future demand for emergency services. And energy companies could use federal satellite imagery to make real-time decisions on how to more effectively restore services following natural disasters.
4. Increased administrative effectiveness and operational efficiency
As is the case in the private sector, government executives can combine their own data sets with data from other sources to run more effective and efficient operations, McEwen said. She cited the challenges around the Defense Department assessing personnel and the readiness of troops, an assessment process that uses multiple factors, including training levels and deployment schedules.
With the government’s work to build a framework for using open data, the Department of Defense and other government bodies can work through complex scenarios more quickly and more thoroughly to reach more insightful conclusions.
5. Increased personalization in healthcare
Many sectors have undergone radical transformations over the past decade, as they used technology and data to reimagine how they provide services. Leading-edge companies in the retail and banking industries, for example, use data to create a 360-degree view of each customer so they can personalize services.
The federal government has a similar opportunity to use data to transform the services it provides to its citizens, Kearney said. Take healthcare programs, where both government and nongovernmental entities could use data to fully understand each patient along with what services work and which don’t. That insight could inform how the government can transform programs — and not just make incremental improvements.
“We think data is there trying to tell a story, and we’d have better use of resources and funding if we use data to understand the story,” Kearney said.