“Big Data” Isn’t the Only Kind of Data

Washington loves buzzwords. Chief among those in the last 12-24 months has been “big data”. You hear it in radio spots on news stations and see it on bus stop posters. I get it; the technological capability of analytics to process petabytes and exabytes of data is allowing for previously unforeseen connections and relationships to be made known. While many government agencies have enormous datasets, many other agencies and most program level leaders do not. So does that mean that the big data have-nots are out of luck? In my experience, any agency and program should be looking to recent trends in analytics to better inform their decision-making processes, big data or not. Last summer, OMB released memo M-13-17, giving government agencies direction on the ‘Evidence and Innovation Agenda’.  As stated in the memo, “agencies are more likely to be fully funded if they show a widespread commitment to evidence and innovation.” Specific strategies listed for how to show this commitment are:

1)   Harnessing data to improve agency results and,

2)   Strengthening agency capacity to use evidence

So what if the agency or program that doesn’t have ‘big data’ to crunch? Are they off the hook or out of luck in being able to show their commitment to evidence and innovation in decision making? Here are 3 ways government agencies can show this commitment without having ‘big data’.

1)   Use the data you have – Regardless of size or scope, all government agencies have access to some data. It may reside with your staff, or can be mined from your agencies stakeholders, but data exists. It might be customer requirements or levels of customer engagement on social media or many other things. It doesn’t require the acquisition of a big data analytics engine to mine the data. Engage with staff and stakeholders to unearth the data that is already at your agency’s fingertips.

2)   Focus on quality over quantity – Agencies who don’t have petabytes of data can still use data analytics to inform strategic decision-making processes. Focus on getting quality data that truly reflects program and project metrics and performance. 200 data points that reflect the current state of a program will be far more informative than 2,000,000 data points that are only tangentially related to your projects.

3)   Gather data points regularly and intentionally – Take a close look at each project and program and identify ways in which data could be collected to better inform decisions or shift focus to better meet stakeholder needs. Make data gathering a normal activity of each project and be specific and strategic about what information you invest time and resources into gathering.

‘Big Data’ isn’t for everybody, but data analytics can be if pursued in ways that make sense for your agency. What have been your experiences with ‘big data’ and data analytics?