e-Records Conference 2014: The Utility (and Immensity) of Government Data

erecordsslogo-300x261This is the fourth post of a multi-part recap of the 2014 e-Records Conference. Presentation materials from the e-Records Conference are available on the e-Records 2014 website.

By Angela Ossar, Government Information Analyst

Government agencies create an immense amount of data. (Hooray for job security!) But what good is that data, really?

Alan Webber, Research Director for IDC Government Insights, sees government information providing huge benefits to the world. He started his keynote address — “Records, Records, Everywhere: The Future of ERM in Government” — by taking us through a brief history of government recordkeeping. From the cuneiform of the Bronze Age through punch cards in World War II, government has used records to track its citizenry (where people are from, what they do, and how much tax they owe) and collect data from huge populations using standardized methods (did you know that government forms date back to the American Revolution?)

A great deal of government processes are still paper-based, which vexes Webber — he mentioned his own frustration of having requested his DD 214 (military discharge) form two years ago and still not having gotten a copy, because it’s probably sitting in a storage box somewhere.

But, in his work he’s also come across some very innovative uses of government data that is electronic. He cited two primary examples: Google Maps’ using government GIS data to function, and Adobe’s working with the FBI to pull digital fingerprints from child pornography created with Photoshop in order to track down its creators.

A full Big Tex auditorium listens attentively to Webber's keynote address

A full Big Tex auditorium listens attentively to Webber’s keynote address

Electronic records management (ERM), says Webber, is driven by three key factors: storage, search, and artificial intelligence (AI). All three are becoming faster, cheaper, and better.

Will government begin to follow the private sector’s lead? Webber cited some really interesting uses of analytics that we’re seeing in the private sector:

  • Google can predict flu epidemics through analyzing Twitter feeds. Google then provides that data to the Centers for Disease Control, who use it to refine their outreach efforts to disseminate information to healthcare providers.
  • A crowdsourced traffic program called Waze, recently purchased by Google, can show the user where traffic is slowing and how to route around it. It even features a switch that tracks how fast the driver is going (and if one’s identity and speed can be tracked, what does that mean for issuing speeding tickets?)
  • Amazon has been caught changing its pricing structure based on users’ profiles — certain items can be more expensive depending, for example, on where a user is located.
  • Airline websites use browser cookies to raise prices if you’re a repeat visitor.

Unfortunately, government doesn’t always move at the speed of technology — okay, it rarely does. “Back in grad school, we used to joke that ‘government innovation’ was an oxymoron,” he said. Why is that? Well, there are three obstacles:

  • Budget. Technology costs a lot of money. The good news is, prices are dropping (for storage, software, and computing power).
  • Security: Even Webber’s government credit card has been hacked. Protecting PII and agency information is critical, but that’s just the first layer of it. Even drawing relationships between data sets can introduce a risk: Webber talked about turning in a report for a federal agency that received a higher level of classification than his own.
  • Organizational: Webber says this is the hardest barrier to get through. Government processes were designed for a paper based world, but we no longer live in a paper based world. Many government employees and elected officials have been using paper for a very long time, and they like the way business runs in a paper based world.

Despite these obstacles, it’s not a hopeless situation. Webber encouraged the audience to look at our business models and processes: how can we reformat what we do right now for a digital world? What are the technologies that are coming, and how can we drive the most value out of them?

Also, don’t underestimate the power of records management expertise. Webber cited an example of a group of RIM professionals’ having a huge impact on the operations of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). You know the “Where’s My Refund?” button in your tax preparation software, right?  Webber says that the button came out of a room of RIM professionals (and just one technologist). It was a great example of records managers analyzing a problem (“Where’s my refund?” was the #1 FAQ that the IRS used to receive), rethinking records management processes (because records at the IRS weren’t centralized at the time this was implemented), and figuring out a way to make the customer experience better (not only could they calculate when a customer would receive his or her refund, but they also had the brilliant idea of tacking on an extra week to the estimated date — that way, when the refund arrives early, everyone loves the IRS!)

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that you find under your control — or, er, not as under your control as you’d like — think about how powerful that data is, and what you as a records manager can do to harness it. Remember that it was the government who just landed a space probe on a comet (the equivalent, Webber opined, of landing a bullet on a bullet). What’s next?