Charles Chieppo is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School.E-mail: Charlie_Chieppo@hks.harvard.edu
During my time in state government, colleagues who were more quantitatively oriented than I (which was all of them) would sometimes declare, when assigned to wrestle yet another vexing problem to the ground, that "the data will set you free." At the time, it confirmed my feelings of being a stranger in a strange land of former investment bankers and venture capitalists, but the subsequent years have proven them right.
From traffic patterns to student performance, government has never had access to so much data. The problem is figuring out how to use it.
Sophisticated programs are now helping governments meet that challenge. For example, when it comes to repairing aging roadways, the traditional methodology is to start with the ones in the worst condition. But since it's generally far more expensive to fix assets nearing the end of their useful life, that may not always be the best approach.
Transportation officials in New Brunswick, Canada, have adapted forest-management software to help them decide which assets to fix first. If managers have limited funds and need to choose between road or bridge repair, they can now do a trade-off analysis to figure out how best to spend the money. Figuring our which jobs to prioritize and finding the "sweet spot" for the points in an asset's lifecycle where it's most cost-effective to perform maintenance saved provincial taxpayers $210 million in U.S. dollars in the last three years, and the savings are expected to reach $1.4 billion over the next two decades.
In Memphis, a predictive-analytics deployment system allows police officers to analyze incident patterns and predict which areas are likely to have the most crime. Deploying officers and other resources based on the data is credited with reducing crime in the city by 31 percent since 2006.
Despite these bright spots, government still has a long way to go when it comes to using the data it possesses to benefit citizens.
Reforms included in 1993 state education legislation led to Massachusetts students becoming the nation's best performers. But a 2006 study concluded that many Bay State school districts were ignoring essential mandates of the Education Reform Act, such as using student data to improve instruction. Since the many of the districts reviewed in the study were large and urban, poor and minority students were the disproportionate victims of the failure to use available data.
Like so many other priorities, the challenge of harnessing the copious data available is made even greater by flat or shrinking budgets. But governments will still make IT investments. When they do, the challenge is to do it in a way that helps build an environment in which data analysis can lead to improved operations.