Agencies Can Do Better by Collecting Data with Purpose

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There’s a difference between having data and having useful data, federal officials said.

In today’s information revolution, agencies collect and disseminate heaps of data by the hour. But it’s time to shift away from collecting all the data, and instead, collect data with purpose, federal leaders said Thursday.

“In the last two years alone we’ve generated more data than throughout human existence,” Oki Mek, chief product officer for the Health and Human Services Department’s acquisitions division, told attendees at IBM’s Think Gov Conference. “And you can’t understand your data without strong data taxonomy.”

Other federal managers also reflected on their agencies’ own efforts to make the most of all the data (or the world’s “newest natural resource”) that their departments collect and use daily.

The Navy Analytics Office’s Chief Data Officer Tammy Tippie said there initially was an intense drive to create one overarching data strategy across multiple data systems. However, enterprises as large as the Navy and the Defense Department have so many different kinds of complex data, they’ve realized they have to get pretty “far into the weeds” before arriving at tangible approaches to manage it all, she said.

“A lot of these things have grown up over time—before data was a resource for us—so there’s data there that’s managed for a purpose but not managed in a way that can be leveraged with the broader enterprise,” Tibbie said. “So how do we bring those into integration, and build new things that capture new data in a way that’s already integrated from the start?”

It’s an issue being tackled across agencies. The Homeland Security Department’s Deputy Chief Capital Officer Roland Edwards said the agency is working to reach a place where multiple lines of business—not just senior leadership—can access and report on all the data the department routinely collects across its systems.

Sabeen Dhanani, U.S. Agency for International Development’s senior digital development advisor, said the agency is currently struggling with using data to inform decision-making. “That doesn’t just go down to how do you analyze the data that you have, but how do you actually change the data that you’re collecting?” she said.

The agency is starting to shift into a direction where it considers the decisions they need to make ahead of collecting considerable amounts of data, “but we still just collect so much data that doesn’t always actually say what we would like for it to say at the end of the day,” Dhanani said.