White House Releases Big Data Report


Big Data as a means of government transparency seems to be garnering more weight in the houses of Congress and in the White House. Last week Congress managed to handle itself long enough to pass the DATA Act out of both houses. This week, White House officials have released a new report on the use case for Big Data for government. (We can almost hear contractor deal teams cracking open fresh cans of red bull.)

White House Counselor John Podesta authored a blog post about the report and findings of the Privacy Working Group, and notes in it the importance of Big Data for improved service delivery, privacy rights, and government transparency. “All this data is being crunched at a speed that is increasingly approaching real-time, meaning that big data algorithms could soon have immediate effects on decisions being made about our lives,” he writes. The statement carries a little extra weight given NSA spying revelations.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) authored the Big Data report, which was completed over the past three months with the aid of several vendor and academic stakeholders. The report provides a number of policy recommendations which include shifting the focus from data collection to the actual use of big data for decision making. That idea goes for future policy creation as well, which report authors argue shouldn’t be tied to a specific technology solution but instead, policy outcomes.

Other recommendations include strengthening and expanding existing laws on consumer privacy rights, data breeches, and expanding the electronic communications act to include things like email. One big focus area is ensuring that Big Data cannot be used for discrimination.

“The detailed personal profiles held about many consumers, combined with automated, algorithm-driven decision-making, could lead—intentionally or inadvertently—to discriminatory outcomes, or what some are already calling “digital redlining.” The federal government’s lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law,” Podesta writes.

Notes spread throughout the report highlight the need for opening up more government datasets and using them to power decision making through Big Data. Although, precious little was devoted to questions of privacy from government, which is as important as protections from private businesses selling, splicing and otherwise using private consumer data in their activities. (The same businesses that have already been providing data to the government.) Indeed only one line was devoted to it in Podesta’s summary – “We must ensure that law enforcement agencies using big data technologies do so responsibly, and that our fundamental privacy rights remain protected.”

In all, the report does offer some insights into Big Data that are positive to see at the federal level, even though work remains to be done on this front. Read the full report here.