Big Data

Seeking Yodas for data analysis


Important, big data is. (Yoda, used by permission. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved)

Would Jedi Master Yoda be able to help federal agencies do big data better?

The notion of the popular Star Wars character saying "Do big data or do not, there is no try," or "Fail fast, young Jedi," seems comical. Yet the take-home message from Carahsoft's April 4 Government Big Data forum in Washington D.C. was that it will be individuals and their insights – at least as much as technology – that shape how useful big data is in the future.

It was keynote speaker Kirit Amin, deputy chief information officer of the U.S. Department of Commerce, who invoked Yoda as a metaphor for the master of an art.

"Why can't we hire 12 to 15 Yodas who understand the big picture (of big data) and tell them, 'your mandate is to make this big thing happen?'" Amin asked.

Amin's impromptu proposition and pop-culture reference came in response to an audience question about the need for the right personnel to analyze the mountains of data that grow larger by the day. The question also referenced federal policies that discourage data-sharing between agencies, hindering feds' ability to combine data from different sources to glean larger insights.

In his response, Amin said it would make sense to spread those highly trained, data-focused individuals across the government – be they visionaries or strategists – with end to end systems expertise along with business acumen.

"My proposition is to find these people – they are out there – and their mandate is to set vision and break barriers," Amin said, suggesting that such mandates could come from Capitol Hill, the Office of Management and Budget or even the Oval office.

"Groom them to be the next leaders in the federal government," Amin added.

Paul Brown, a former technical fellow at the National Security Agency and current CEO of the enterprise software company Koverse, piggy-backed on Amin's statements.

The government may have been a late adopter of cloud compared to industry, but Brown argued that it is already leading the way in big data -- and warned that technical innovation alone will not be enough to maximize its potential.

It is still early in the big-data era – it might be 10 to 20 years before we see where it goes, Brown said – but by then youngsters who doodle on iPads and have never seen a rotary phone will be running the big-data show.

A leader's "goals should be to create the right environment so that the kid who is nine years old and doesn't know a world without iPads, when they come to government, it's right for them to innovate," Brown said.

How not to do big data

Aside from personnel, the panel discussions at the forum dwelt at length on questions of how not to do big data, with a variety of experts explaining common mistakes agencies tend to make in their pilot programs. "Big data is no excuse for a (pilot program) taking two to three years," said Chris Biow, federal chief technology officer and vice president of MarkLogic.

Biow said the longer agencies play a waiting game to see if a big data pilot works, the more money they are wasting. A better bet is an agile approach where failures can be quickly detected and adjustments made immediately by agencies -- in other words, it is better to fail fast than fail big.

"What's done wrong is we commit ourselves to two- to three-year processes because we think big data is hard so it probably takes that long," Biow said. "When you do that, you set yourself up for the most expensive software bug that exists, which is your requirements."

Other mistakes agencies tend to make include not catering their big data pilots to specific problems and not outlining returns on investment.

Agencies, Brown said, should go in thinking, "I'm going to solve this specific problem, it's going to have this specific return on investment."

"Have a very specific mission in mind," he added.

Jim Campbell, corporate systems engineer at HP, said potential big-data users in the public sector face scope problems, too.

"In the government sector, you get told you're doing cloud, you're doing big data, you're doing Hadoop,' and you're having this technology chasing questions or problems," Campbell said. "But before you do that, you have to define the scope of what you're trying to define. All other questions fall in place once you've done that."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.


  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Fri, Apr 5, 2013 Yoda

Trust not this crude matter. Invert your data I will.

Fri, Apr 5, 2013

Here we go again ... what color do you want it?

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group