Big Data in Washington — We’re Not Listening

I remember reading “data science: sexiest job of the 21st century” and beginning to research the vast applications of this new field, ranging from movie recommendations to mapping the human genome. The private sector has jumped on the big data revolution, however Washington is another story.

Rather than speculate on what I believe may be happening in Washington, Kalev Leetaru, a data scientist in Washington, published an article detailing his experience. Here are his two main points on why Washington is failing to innovate:

Aversion to Risk

I constantly here the word innovation thrown out by politicians explaining how we are going to solve the fiscal crisis the government is experiencing. However, spending millions of dollars and years simply planning is not how you innovate. As Leetaru explains —

“The single biggest need for the US Government is to learn how to innovate and innovating means learning how to fail. In contrast, Government favors ‘death by committee’ billion-dollar monoliths that spend more on planning than actual execution, cultivating a fear of failure. Silicon Valley biases towards action and ‘fails fast, early and often’ with small prototypes that rapidly prove (or disprove) an idea before much is invested: Failure becomes experience and its low cost cultivates innovation. As the Washington Post so poignantly put it “A failed project in Washington is akin to a great tragedy — with managers being called to testify at congressional hearings and Government Accountability Office investigations being launched into why so much taxpayer money was wasted. But in the entrepreneurial world, say tech leaders, failure is regarded as a learning opportunity on the way to the next innovation.””

A Disregard for Data

The main obstacle Washington must overcome before data can be truly effective — people in charge actually have to listen to the data. Here are a couple terrifying examples from Leetaru’s experience —

“I once met the former director of one of the US intelligence agencies who told me “The problem with all this big data stuff is the guys bringing it to you are young kids in their 20’s and 30’s — I will never trust anything that comes from someone younger than 50 so data holds no value for me” and followed it with “If I have a question, I’ll meet with that country’s ambassador — I can learn more from looking into his eyes than any spreadsheet can ever tell me.””

If you thought that was cause for concern, here is his other example —

“One large government agency I spoke with said their previous analytics program had been scaled back and was presently in a holding pattern because its findings frequently contradicted the gut feelings of senior policymakers. At another agency I was told that a massive statistics collection program was being suspended because its conclusions suggested US policy in the region was failing, while another agency where I was helping to advise a project banned me from using US Government-collected survey data from the region because it suggested US policy was actually making the situation worse rather than better. In all of my conversations across government, when data and policy come into conflict, it is always data that loses.”

So how do we deal with the current political landscape that surrounds big data and decision makers? I believe a massive overhaul of the entire system is needed, specifically related to streamlining the planning process. But for the time being, I’ll stick to the private sector.