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Big data meets big government: big promise, big challenges

September 01, 2016

Your smartphone, without asking, can remind you where you parked, estimate the evening’s commute home, tip you to an amphitheater show on the way and warn you about a thunderstorm that could ruin the evening.

Shouldn’t City Hall, the Statehouse, Washington become as savvy as the gadget in your pocket?

They’re getting there, slowly.

Today, sensors along Kansas City’s streetcar line track how many riders, pedestrians and cars fill Main Street and its sidewalks at a given moment. Public Wi-Fi along that River Market-to-Union Station stretch detect how many users have 816 and 913 phone numbers — presumably locals — versus the number who appear to be out-of-towners. It can give a rough idea of whether an evening crowd in the corridor tilts more to millennials or baby boomers. And the free Wi-Fi notices whether the crowd consists more of regulars or newbies.

That information helps the city decide when to brighten streetlights for crowds or dim them to save energy. It can alert police when to send more patrols, help restaurants along the line fine-tune their marketing and will eventually signal dispatchers when to deploy more buses.

“If you’ve got a full streetcar headed south to Union Station, you’ll be able to tell the buses to wait a minute for those riders,” said Kansas City chief innovation officer Bob Bennett. “Some of this stuff is cool and some is smart. It’s smart when you’re actually doing analysis on that data and mitigating a crisis before a crisis even occurs.”

Yet these are baby steps.

Government’s ability to collect information, analyze it and use the resulting smarts to stretch tax dollars is only barely gaining traction.

This may be an iPhone age, but government data-crunchers typically work flip-phone budgets. Many agencies struggle to corral information they already have, much less manage a new breed of real-time statistics. They must juggle privacy issues, retrofit generations of old-school record-keeping to a digital present and overcome suspicion of what looks to some like another geek fad.

At the heart of the promise, and challenge, is what’s become known as “big data” — mountains of information that reveal new insights when computer analyses detect previously unseen patterns or associations. It’s how Netflix recommends movies, how intelligence agencies hunt for terror networks and how public health officials are beginning to predict disease outbreaks.

“Outside of (information technology circles),” one local government chief information officer told researchers, “no one gets the term (big data). … I explicitly told the IT group not to use the term in conversations with our customers across local government.”

The hope

Yet the promise of a data-smart efficiency for government beckons from untold directions.

A 2013 report, underwritten by a remote computer storage firm that figures to benefit from more data-centered government, said that a survey of 150 IT officials in federal agencies estimated that better use of large databases could trim spending by $500 billion a year.

The McKinsey Global Institute said governments around the world could save $3.7 trillion a year by putting big data to big use.

“In the public sector,” the report said, “making relevant data more readily accessible across otherwise separated departments can sharply reduce search and processing time.”

Think of a teenager in foster care. Because she’d be a ward of the state, it would be possible to track her social media accounts, her school attendance, her health records. Algorithms, although flawed like those who make them, might tip off her counselors that she’s at a particular risk of drug abuse or teen pregnancy.

Could remote sensors tracking whether elderly people are taking their medications, or listening for the thud of a fall, help them live on their own longer rather than going to a pricier assisted living facility?

Might a system that sells fishing permits be tied into resorts, campgrounds and weather reports to help a tourist town better capitalize on the dollars that come with those in search of lunkers?

“The private sector is way ahead on this front,” said Rick Howard, a research vice president for Gartner Inc., an information technology research firm. “Government’s in competition. It is being judged and benchmarked against service providers in the commercial sector. That gap is only going to become greater if they don’t get on board.”

Still, even government is getting in on the game.

On Kansas City’s east side, ShotSpotter technology deployed in 2012 listens for gunfire and triangulates its location. Of 285 arrests using the detectors nationally through June, 164 came in Kansas City. And because it’s often not the first shots that strike a victim, but rather subsequent gunfire, the ability to send cops to a location at the first sound means police can respond quickly enough to spare bloodshed.

The Chicago Department of Public Health monitors Twitter for complaints that could be linked to food poisoning to better focus its restaurant inspections. The project has tracked more than 3,000 tweets and submitted some 1,700-plus reports of food poisoning, although the project notes: “All the tweets in the world can’t put a thermometer in a dairy case.”

Chicago has also begun wiring sensors to light poles — it aims to create a network of 500 listening posts over the coming 2 1/2 years — to monitor air quality, noise and traffic.

In Boston, city officials have begun sharing fire hydrant locations so volunteers could pledge to dig them out of the snow in winter months.

Researchers in Colorado have used data to map out, county by county, where poor families eligible for a handful of government assistance programs are getting that help and where they’re not.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is exploring virtual laboratories, where field researchers will be able to share their data remotely, gaining access to distant data banks and continually adding to information to share with far-flung scientists.

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Kansas City News