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Government 3.0: Driving a Big Data Ecosystem

By Kristine St-Laurent and Greg D'Avignon

Putting data to work

The public sector has long taken the lead in the collection, analysis and diffusion of data. On any given day, government recieves hundreds of thousands of cross-sector data inputs, such as daily bridge crossings, permit applications, high school grades, income tax filings, hospital admissions, and information on land use and property transactions.   Similarly, businesses collect vast amounts of information, such as regulatory and environmental compliance data and statistics on costs, inventory, shipments, customer purchases, and supply chain patterns.  But what value does all of this bring when most of the data isn’t linked, let alone analysed or used to make our lives, businesses or environment better?

Collecting data for data’s sake doesn’t accomplish much.  Right now, the system for collecting, controlling and applying “big data” to decision-making across the public sector is disaggregated and not used to its full potential. This is in part understandable, as we have now entered an age when stepped up computing power and rapid advances in artificial intelligence and other technologies are allowing  information to be used to improve the lives and prosperity of citizens -- often in personalized ways.  

Most data sources in the government domain are stored away never to see the light of day – or, if used, they are accessed in isolation. Gaps in data collection mean that valuable information often is not utilized in decision-making and service delivery.   The public sector as a whole struggles with data, owing to a 1970s culture of risk aversion that stops collaboration and hinders analysis, information-sharing, innovation, and smart policy-making.  The consequences include lagging public services, delayed project reviews, less than optimal  health outcomes, and higher costs for public agencies and the private sector alike.  In fairness, it must be recognized that many businesses also lack the  foresight, skills and know-how to benefit from smart digital and data aggregation and analytics strategies.

De-risking big data

Government is well positioned to act as a big data convener and to create new mechanisms and 21st century Crown Corporations to house, receive and manage timely access to this combined or “stacked data”.  Everyone with different access protocols and within a regulatory box of global best practice privacy rules would benefit.  It is clear in global centres where stacked data or speedy data access is enabled that researchers, academics, entrepreneurs, businesses and public agencies all become more innovative and productive as a result.

Recently, the Bank of Canada noted the benefits of developing new public and private big data partnerships.  Growing public acceptance of big data analytics can help de-risk the transition to government 3.0.  Two generations of today’s citizens already choose to give away their personal details in exchange for gaining access to web-based platforms and higher levels of information and analytics. Citizens increasingly are the target but also the biggest beneficiaries of big data, as seen through the explosion of integrated lifestyle apps and  IOT* products (* the Internet of things refers to connected devices that collect data that can be aggregated and analysed ).  According to Apple, since 2008 over 180 billion of these lifestyle apps have been downloaded.  Combined with fitness trackers, other wearables, fintech tools, online banking and other IOT* they enable commercial or personal data collection mechanisms such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa to gain market acceptance.  More and more consumers are now “voting with their fingers” by giving away personal details (and in many cases even paying for the chance to do so).  In return, big data delivers personalized analytics, greater consumer information and choices, and enhanced quality of life opportunities.

Arguably the most pressing concern facing a government-driven data ecosystem is protecting elements of individual privacy. This concern is valid, but it can be managed with smart policy – policy that is being implemented around the world and in BC as we speak.  There are existing tools and legislation to ensure consumers can opt-out from sharing their information, ecrypt DNA and data, and to allow  citizens to own and direct the use of their data as they see fit.  Estonia and Korea are leaders in the march to government 3.0.  Both place privacy protection at the center of their big data policies.  Decision-makers in BC should look to the policy frameworks established in these (and other) countries (such as Denmark in the case of healthcare) to identify successful examples of government-led efforts to implement and tap the advantages of big data.

On a personal note: The power of aggregating data

Big data improves decision-making and transparency by providing evidence on a more systematic basis. Below is a personal story from the Business Council’s President and CEO, Greg D’Avignon, that highlights the benefits that can come from aggregating information.  

Greg’s mother is in her 80s and lives in a seniors’ facility.  Like many she experiences memory lapses, but otherwise is active and healthy. Every day, she takes a series of pills from her pill bubble pack (akin to the image below) to manage a series of minor chronic health issues, as do many seniors.  Occasionally she forgets to take her pills, or misjudges the time of day and takes pills sooner or later than recommended—a common issue with eldery patients, and the reason the bubble pack was developed in the first place. 

Enter Simon Fraser University, which ”started up” a start up incubator called VentureLabs.  One of the start ups is working on Bluetooth-enabled pill packaging that triggers a notification alert when pills are either taken or not taken in accordance with the timeline programmed in the packaging.  In this case, a notification alert could be sent to:

  • Greg, who is made aware if his mother has or has not taken her pills;
  • A nurse or care giver, who can call or visit in person to ensure pills are taken;
  • The doctor, who can adjust the health plan incorporating other health data as needed; 
  • The pharmacist, who can better manage the drug inventory and the delivery of her meds and, in turn, pass information to suppliers who can adjust their stock and perhaps learn from the behavior of their patients taking the drugs and innovate accordingly.

This marriage of data and technology increases efficiencies in providing health care, in the quality of patient health outcomes, and in the business of health care and supply-chain management.  Even a few years ago, this technology would have been too costly to replicate en masse; but with continued advances in technology and lower input costs, innovations such as this are becoming more feasible and more common.

The changing nature of data and government’s role as convener

The nature of data itself is changing—not only are there new types of data, but the amount of data is expanding rapidly, aided by new platforms and providers.  BC, for example, is a global leader in Genomics and has vast stores of tissue data as well as data related to clincial care outcomes.  Exponentially increasing volumes of data have the potential to advance economic development, create new businesses, boost productivity, and deliver more equitable, transparent and efficient services.  Smartphones, geospatial sensors and wearable devices with integrated lifestyle apps offer real-time, on-demand data that can inform behavioural change and support purchasing, consumer and patient decision making. Emerging data sets based on travel, fitness and consumers’ purchasing habits can be combined with infrastructure data to improve land use planning and transportation services. Virtual reality offers exciting opportunities to manage project proposals, incorporate First Nations perspectives into land use planning processes, and mitigate the impact of development on the environment while enabling the efficent utilization of human and financial capital.  Artificial intelligence can apply global research and information with BC environmental data and patient genomics to determine optimal steps for better personalized health outcomes, such as linking up non-cancer medication for sending cancer into remission.

British Columbia is well-positioned to be a leader in the era of big data.  We are home to a diverse population of 4.7 million.  We have 70% of Canada’s bio-diversity, a myriad of climatic and geological zones, both fresh and salt water environments, a single-payer health system supported by world-class research and applied technology institutions, and advanced computing power and sophisticated professional services firms that are all connected to the world.  All of this can support a BC big data strategy.  Not only are we good at collecting statistical information, we have the advantage of being located along the dynamic west coast Cascadia Corridor.  Next door is Seattle, the world’s largest big data storage centre, suggesting the potential to develop strategic data-storage and virtual reality application partnerships with this stacked data.

For decision-makers and the public, it’s important to keep in mind that data is no longer within the sole purview of the government, nor should it be collected simply for its own sake. There are bigger and more promising avenues for leveraging big data as we work to develop a healthier BC economy, environment and population.