Data Democracy in the Data Age

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The next decade will usher us into a true Data Age where data can be used by anybody and influences all aspects of our world. 

In every aspect of our lives, there is an exponential increase in data underway—a trend that will only accelerate as 5G devices and networks become ubiquitous and more of our world becomes digitally connected. Current estimates indicate that by 2025, the world will consume 175 zetabytes of data—roughly 10x what it consumes today. This “big bang” of data has given birth to a veritable new universe of data-driven insights—insights that are transforming all aspects of our world, from the management of our organizations to our understanding of society and the natural world.

Though many organizations have touted their desires to be more data-driven, including the federal government, which released the final version of its data strategy in December 2019, the reality is that most organizations are still in the early stages of seizing the opportunities from data. In fact, according to a survey conducted by ESG late last year, 89% of organizations worldwide are still trying to figure out how best to bring data-driven solutions to their challenges and operations. 

One of the reasons data adoption has been relatively slow is the high levels of skill historically needed to leverage it (keyword: historically). A quick look at the soaring salaries data scientists can command shows how in-demand their expertise has become. But if the past decade was marked by the recognition of the value of data and early innovations and experiments for how best to put it to use, then the next decade will usher us into a true Data Age where data can be used by anybody and influences all aspects of our world. 

New tools and data management practices, non-existent just a few years ago, are making it far easier for non-data scientists to investigate, monitor, analyze and act on data with only a little bit of training. This notion, called data democratization, has been a hot topic amongst CIOs, CDOs, CTOs, CEOs, government leaders and elected officials for the way it enables institutions to be more agile, accountable, innovative and aligned with their goals.

Now apply this concept to the nation. In democratic institutions, like the one underpinning our society, more access to data is invariably a good thing. In an era of strategic disinformation campaigns, a data democracy, where citizens and everyday people have access and the ability to understand data may be the antidote needed to cure ourselves of the “post truth” era. 

Just as the rise of information technology changed the core fabric of society, as we enter into the Data Age, here are some ways data will change our government, democracy and society for the better in the coming years:

Empowering Government Workforces

One of the best ways data can be used in government is to enable front-line workers with independent authority to make decisions and solve problems in real time. Traditional experiences with local, state and federal agencies were mono-directional. Citizens, residents or organizations make requests, submit cases or apply for permits only to wait and trust that the system is at work. Other times tickets get escalated and moved through opaque processes unwieldy and outdated by modern standards.

Putting data in the hands of front-line workers empowers them to solve more challenges faster at the point of intake. This creates benefits from two fronts. First, it engenders higher employee satisfaction by providing greater autonomy to workers who feel like they are making a difference first-hand. Second, it elevates the customer experience, allowing government agencies and civil servants to truly serve citizens, businesses and constituents.

Furthermore, this approach is fully in line with how government workers want to operate. According to the 2019 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 91% of respondents reported that they are seeking ways to do their jobs better. Creating data democracy in government agencies will help restore shaken trust in public institutions as constituents and stakeholders see their government being more transparent, reachable and responsive to their needs. 

The 2020 Census, currently underway, is slated to be the most accurate count ever. Its data will provide a better understanding of our people, allow us to intersect demography data with other information and ultimately inform everything from investing in schools and roads to planning for future disasters. 

Though the decennial census has collected population data since 1790, being able to derive accurate data about the nation’s population has never been more important. The recent COVID-19 crisis has shown just how important it is to have accurate data on where people live, who they are, and how close they are to others or to resources.  

COVID-19 is just one of the numerous challenges facing the nation, from ongoing protests in response to social injustices to the future impacts of climate change. Comprehensive data and the ability to leverage it across government will allow decision makers to plan and build a better future for all citizens.

Open Data

A final way data democracy will change society is the increasing access to open data. The federal government is the owner of some of the most important data on science, epidemiology, climate change, commerce, raw resource utilization and more. And while federal research agencies are staffed with some of the brightest minds, they nevertheless function better still when matched with the researchers, innovators, thinkers, and capital from private research institutions, private enterprises and other non-governmental actors.  

As we surge forward into the Data Age, making more of this data available will allow more people to ask more questions and derive more answers. Some of our best moments as a nation happen when public and private innovation are harnessed together.

We are just beginning to enter the Data Age. As business, government and the very society in which we live change, we’ll inevitably have new questions. With more people able to bring data to everything, we’ll also be able to get to more of the answers. 

Frank Dimina is vice president of public sector for Splunk.