Big Data

Lots of data, lots of fears

Shutterstock image (by ratch): confused businessman with question marks above his head.

Big data, big rewards and big headaches.

In a new survey, federal agency leaders were nearly unanimous in saying their big data analytics projects have had positive impacts, but they were almost equally concerned about managing the torrents of data.

The poll of federal business and technology decision-makers was conducted by Beacon Technology Partners and underwritten by Unisys. The results were presented Oct. 6 at an FCW event, "Big Data: The Path to Mission-Centric Analytics," in Washington, D.C.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents with ongoing big data projects said the projects had "improved their ability to predict trends and quantify risk," and 93 percent said the speed and quality of decision-making had risen thanks to such projects.

But among the respondents merely considering big data, nearly three quarters said they worried that big data projects would tax legacy systems, and close to 70 percent wondered whether they would be able to effectively analyze all the data they were collecting (seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak).

Beacon Technology's James Warrick, who presented the survey data at the event, described the challenge of deploying a true big data analytics program as a "three-legged stool. It requires staffing, it requires infrastructure, and it requires very robust tools." 

Given agency resource constraints and the difficulty of putting a clear value on big data, Warrick said, many respondents said their agencies were hesitant to take the plunge. Four in 10 said their agency had no big data plans in place. Among those who are pursuing big data analytics, just 16 percent had a program deployed and fully in place. Thirty-eight percent were piloting one or more projects, and the rest either had projects in the planning stages or were simply investigating.

"It is unfortunate that many federal programs are missing the opportunity to leverage advanced data analytics since a number of programs are successfully using these tools to achieve breakthrough results," said Rod Fontecilla, vice president for advanced data analytics at Unisys Federal, in a statement. "Forward-thinking agencies within the federal government have proven the value of advanced data analytics in mission areas ranging from protecting against potential threats related to goods and people crossing our borders to projects for evaluating the potential delinquency risk of federal loan programs," he said.

As they looked to turn big data into positive action, federal leaders said they’d be hiring more data analysts (68 percent) and looking to consultants for help (70 percent) over the coming year. But as Government Accountability Office Chief Scientist Tim Persons noted at the Oct. 6 event, even crafting a data-analytics job can prove challenging for agencies -- much less finding a qualified candidate to fill it.

Persons, in his keynote address, pointed out that for every federal job, "we have to code a position according to an [Office of Personnel Management] code." Persons added, "There is no number code for this [data scientist] position. So any federal agency wanting to do this is going to have to take an existing code and ... start tweaking."

Warrick, echoed Person's point.  "This is not just bodies," he said.  "It's the type of skill sets being sought.  There is an abiding uneasiness whether the traditional means of hiring personnel will really work for acquiring big data expertise."

Explore the findings here.

Troy K. Schneider contributed to this report.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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