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The public sector has a way to go before handling big data well

Think tank Demos has been examining the future of “big data” and the public sector and it’s a mixed conclusion. Big data and its competent use will undoubtedly be very important in the coming months and years and respect for consumers’ privacy and the usefulness of the data will be paramount.

Demos has reservations about how data handlers in government are going to manage. Primarily the issue is about the number of “dashboards” in use and how these affect the quality of the data.

Demos’ view is that the specific technology in question can actually get in the way of good implementation. This is for a number of reasons, primarily associated with cost; this factor means people will opt for a standard “off the shelf” software package that is designed to fit every purpose and therefore doesn’t fit any 100 per cent.

The government has rolled out 800 such dashboards so far and the think tank acknowledges that they can be a great boon to the non-technical personnel. However, it urges three action points to make a good outcome more likely:

  1. Identify the purpose and use. “Dashboards are a generic response to collect, analyse and act on large data sets. In and of themselves, they are not necessarily the best way to understand all problems, and must be carefully designed to match real organisational needs,” says Demos – so both users and designers must be briefed on what has to be achieved and how.
  2. Understand the limitations of dashboard technology. “By their nature, dashboards leave out more than they include: usually with the user not knowing how the data presented was created,” says Demos. Under-informed and unbriefed users can end up blinded by science and figures; meanwhile someone with a vested interest may be able to game the system to their advantage.
  3. Pick the right people to handle the dashboards. Don’t assume that if it looks user-friendly it’s going to be friendly towards every user. “The skills to create and manage dashboards are extremely valuable and sought after in the private and public sectors,” says Demos. “A whole new generation of analysts will need to be trained, with a new combination of skill sets, ranging from data analytics, design, social science and public policy.”

Longer-in-the-tooth IT commentators may recognise the syndrome from years ago, and we’ll no doubt see it again: if someone offers a technology as a complete panacea to a business or public sector problem, they probably haven’t understood the complexity. None of which means that a particular tool isn’t pretty useful, it just means the tool still needs to be understood.

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