Data rich and information poor

A panel of data management and warehousing experts gathered Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to discuss the role of technology in achieving transparency in government. Executives from Teradata, Dow Jones and noted author and reporter Stephen Baker said the fundamental challenge facing government was turning unstructured, static data into usable information.

“For the first time we’re starting to see on the Hill a light bulb going off about the real benefits of data and data analytics…for government transparency,” Tim Day, vice president for government affairs at Teradata, said in his opening comments during the luncheon. “We’re at the very beginning in terms of the volumes and the depths of the data that we’re gonna have access to,” Teradata Chief Technology Officer Stephen Brobst added.

Among the main topics of discussion was the use of data analytics in the fields of healthcare and financial services. According to Mr. Brobst, healthcare analytics could predict which individuals will represent the bulk of healthcare costs over the next few years as well as understand what kind of interventions should be implemented to help cut down those costs. For banks and the financial services sector, Steve Horne, vice president of Master Data Management and Integration Services at Dow Jones, said the government needs to move away from audit-based accounting methodology.

“Audits equal autopsies,” Mr. Horne said. “By the time you audit, the patient is dead. The money is already out the door.” He said too much time and effort is wasted in compiling regulatory filings and not enough time is spent turning that data into information. Tens of thousands of documents and regulatory filings are being shelved, but the information in those documents is not being leveraged to proactively prevent fraud, waste and abuse, Mr. Horne said.

One seemingly contradictory concept that pervaded Tuesday’s discussion was that true transparency occurs when people outside the organization have access to the data without compromising a certain level of security. In healthcare, leveraging data analytics could lead to new ways of predicting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or could determine how much you pay for health insurance, based on your buying and eating habits. It could also create privacy vulnerabilities in unforeseen ways, Stephen Baker, author of “The Numerati” said.

In the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.) are pushing a bill, H.R. 1242, that requires the creation of a centralized, web-accessible public database system in a consistent, standardized format within the Department of Treasury, so that TARP funds will be easily visible and traceable. So far, H.R. 1242 has been referred to the House Committee on Financial Services, though little action has been taken since March.

Despite fears of privacy, the assembled panel agreed that data-driven technology had a big role to play in making government more transparent and accountable. “Data is the story of the coming decade,” Mr. Baker, “Numerati” author, said. And there was universal agreement that the same technology that allows Visa credit card holders to be notified within seconds of suspicious transaction could be applied to government projects funding with Recovery Act money.

“By using the information and technology being applied today in the private sector…it can lead to tremendous savings for government,” Mr. Horn said.

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