Big Data’s Big Headaches, Indiana’s Economic Dollars, Austin’s Tech Scene and Texas’ Smart Utility

News you should know about government and technology.
May 7, 2013

Edited by Tod Newcombe

Can cheaper data storage and more powerful analytic tools transform the public sector just as it has done to other sectors of the economy?

Extracting knowledge from data stores has become an essential function, said Rick Davis, CIO at the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC).

“We started accumulating all this data, and then people started saying, ‘We’d like to report from this,’ or ‘We want to do some trend analysis.’”

Still, governments that want to harness the power of big data face some serious obstacles. One such challenge emerges from the fact that governments collect and store data in so many different formats. Much of the information that governments want to tap into -- text documents, emails, photos, videos and posts on social media sites -- doesn’t even reside in structured databases.

This appears in our free Technology e-newsletter. Not already a subscriber? Click here.

“If you want to integrate the data in the right way, you need to make sure the data can be useful,” said Dante Ricci, a director at SAP, which provides technologies for extracting data from both structured and unstructured sources. “It’s a much more manual effort if you have to take data that’s not in standard format. That’s a big problem.”

There’s also the need to ensure security and privacy, which is a challenge for all kinds of government IT initiatives but especially big data projects because they often employ personal data that was gathered for an entirely different purpose. For situations like that, governments must establish new policies that are fully vetted and transparent, so there’s no misconceptions about using the data in some other fashion than it was intended, according to Bernard Soriano, deputy director of risk management at the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

When a citizen gives data to an agency for one purpose -- like to apply for a driver’s license -- and the agency plans to use that data for other purposes, that agency must make some kind of disclosure, Soriano said.

“That’s a problem for most governments,” he said. “There’s a purpose and mission for an organization. The activities that the organization conducts need to be in line with that mission and purpose.”

The more data an agency collects and stores, the more careful it must be about who gains access to that data, said Virginia’s Davis. DOC is keeping that principle in mind as it creates tools to let high-end business users pull reports from its data stores without help from the IT department.

“You want to be able to track who’s doing what reporting,” he said.

Technology is helping Indiana reap big economic dollars. In 2012, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) secured $6.4 billion in economic development commitments that are expected to lead to more than 27,000 jobs in the state. Technology played a major role in bringing these jobs and revenue to the state.

Thanks to implementation of a customer relationship management (CRM) solution, IEDC doubled its per-employee productivity and total deal flow while reducing the agency’s annual budget allocation from $60 million to $40 million, according to former IEDC Executive Vice President Chad Pittman.

The CRM system has given IEDC the ability to communicate with businesses that want to expand, local economic development officials throughout the state, and private business consultants. The result: State business processes have improved across the board.

Is Austin, Texas, about to step onto the national stage for technology innovation? In April, Google announced that Austin will join the ranks of Provo, Utah; Olathe, Kansas; and Kansas City as a recipient of its ultra high-speed gigabit fiber network. City officials are hoping the honor will help the city workforce operate more efficiently and potentially help narrow the digital divide by extending high-speed connectivity to a previously underserved audience. It could also boost the city’s burgeoning role as a technology innovator in the public sector.

Austin and its residents have long shown an interest in finding new and better ways to use technology. In 2009, citizens formed "Open Austin” to help the city use technology more efficiently. Motivated in part by the city's stalled website redesign, the crowdsourcing group soon turned its focus toward helping the city become more transparent.

That resulted in the 2011 launch of an open data portal, which now contains 200 data sets, spanning multiple city departments, and features a wide range of information from restaurant inspection results to fire station locations to crime stats. Publishing Austin’s data online represented not just a significant culture shift but also a huge work commitment for department-level staff who spent a considerable amount of time putting the information into standardized formats. The city's goal is to make their data as useful as possible to average citizens, researchers and application developers.

In 2012, Austin was designated as a Code for America partner city. Through this partnership with what some call “the Peace Corps for geeks,” the city created a number of community apps, including localized hazard awareness and preparation; real-time information on the status of the city's water crossings; and information to help animal shelters reunite lost pets with their owners and find homes for those that are stray.

The city has also created Austin Finance Online, a public checkbook of sorts that features detailed financial reporting information, and is working on an open 311 dashboard. Calling this information a "data gold mine," the city will be better able to track and improve service delivery based on citizen service requests.

The largest municipal utility in the U.S. is going smart. This week, CPS Energy, the San Antonio, Texas-based utility, which serves more than 740,000 electric and gas customers, announced it’s deploying a smart grid network.

The network will allow the utility to incorporate new technologies as they come online. For instance, CPS Energy will now be able to add a spectrum of new devices to the network like smart meters, smart switches and other technologies that make the grid function more efficiently.

The utility is also investing in plants and resources that have low- or no-air emissions to address concerns about the region’s air quality.

Information for this newsletter was compiled from news reports published by