Magazine article Public Finance

Matters of Fact

Magazine article Public Finance

Matters of Fact

Article excerpt

It used to be hard to gather all the information needed for monitoring and planning services. But now we're in the Big Data Era, things are set to change

THERE IS A lot of talk about 'Big Data' at the moment. But what is it and what are the implications for public sector bodies?

There was a time when it was difficult to get hold of the information needed for monitoring and planning. We used to build specialist management information systems to extract and compile data around a relatively small number of performance indicators. We are now entering what has been dubbed the Big Data Era, where customer relationship management systems and business processes produce huge amounts of data as by-products of day-to-day operations.

We are also beginning to collect much more geospatial information, feedback from social media interactions and real-time sensory data in areas such as energy conservation, telecare and traffic management. The result is that we are in danger of being overwhelmed by data.

What is different about this new environment is that we are now gathering information that we might or might not need. We don't know what we don't know - we don't know the questions that might be posed in the future and we most likely do not understand the potential causeand-effect relationships between the different types of data collected. But storage is relatively cheap and so we have begun to build huge virtual warehouses of potentially valuable data.

Why is this important for the public sector? The public services almost certainly produce more data than any other industry, plus the analytical perspectives are probably more diverse than in any other sector. In a period of continuing economic uncertainty, public service bodies - like other industries - need to focus on cost control, understanding customers, optimising operations and managing risk.

Additionally, they need to be aware of the political and regulatory impacts of plans and policy changes. Take, for example, the recent rows over government benefit caps and Westminster council's planned parking restrictions. In both these cases, assessing and modelling the political and regulatory effects of these decisions were probably as important, if not more so, than the assessment of their impact on revenues, costs and operations. …

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