The GovLab Selected Readings on Big Data

As part of an ongoing effort to build a knowledge base for the field of opening governance by organizing and disseminating its learnings, the GovLab Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended works on key opening governance topics. In this edition, we explore the literature on Big Data. To suggest additional readings on this or any other topic, please email biblio@thegovlab.org.

Data and its uses for Governance

Big Data refers to the wide-scale collection, aggregation, storage, analysis and use of data. Government is increasingly in control of a massive amount of raw data that, when analyzed and put to use, can lead to new insights on everything from public opinion to environmental concerns. The burgeoning literature on Big Data argues that it generates value by: creating transparency; enabling experimentation to discover needs, expose variability, and improve performance; segmenting populations to customize actions; replacing/supporting human decision making with automated algorithms; and innovating new business models, products and services. The insights drawn from data analysis can also be visualized in a manner that passes along relevant information, even to those without the tech savvy to understand the data on its own terms (see The GovLab Selected Readings on Data Visualization).

Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Annotated Selected Reading List (in alphabetical order)

Australian Government Information Management Office. The Australian Public Service Big Data Strategy: Improved Understanding through Enhanced Data-analytics Capability Strategy Report. August 2013. http://bit.ly/17hs2xY.

  • This Big Data Strategy produced for Australian Government senior executives with responsibility for delivering services and developing policy is aimed at ingraining in government officials that the key to increasing the value of big data held by government is the effective use of analytics. Essentially, “the value of big data lies in [our] ability to extract insights and make better decisions.”
  • This positions big data as a national asset that can be used to “streamline service delivery, create opportunities for innovation, identify new service and policy approaches as well as supporting the effective delivery of existing programs across a broad range of government operations.”

Bollier, David. The Promise and Peril of Big Data. The Aspen Institute, Communications and Society Program, 2010. http://bit.ly/1a3hBIA.

  • This report captures insights from the 2009 Roundtable exploring uses of Big Data within a number of important consumer behavior and policy implication contexts.
  • The report concludes that, “Big Data presents many exciting opportunities to improve modern society. There are incalculable opportunities to make scientific research more productive, and to accelerate discovery and innovation. People can use new tools to help improve their health and well-being, and medical care can be made more efficient and effective. Government, too, has a great stake in using large databases to improve the delivery of government services and to monitor for threats to national security.
  • However, “Big Data also presents many formidable challenges to government and citizens precisely because data technologies are becoming so pervasive, intrusive and difficult to understand. How shall society protect itself against those who would misuse or abuse large databases? What new regulatory systems, private-law innovations or social practices will be capable of controlling anti-social behaviors–and how should we even define what is socially and legally acceptable when the practices enabled by Big Data are so novel and often arcane?”

Boyd, Danah and Kate Crawford. “Six Provocations for Big Data.” A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society. September 2011http://bit.ly/1jJstmz.

  • In this paper, Boyd and Crawford raise challenges to unchecked assumptions and biases regarding big data. The paper makes a number of assertions about the “computational culture” of big data and pushes back against those who consider big data to be a panacea.
  • The authors’ provocations for big data are:
    • Automating Research Changes the Definition of Knowledge
    • Claims to Objectivity and Accuracy are Misleading
    • Big Data is not always Better Data
    • Not all Data is Equivalent
    • Just Because it is accessible doesn’t make it ethical
    • Limited Access to Big Data creates New Digital Divide

The Economist Intelligence Unit. Big Data and the Democratisation of Decisions. October 2012. http://bit.ly/17MpH8L.

  • This report from the Economist Intelligence Unit focuses on the positive impact of big data adoption in the private sector, but its insights can also be applied to the use of big data in governance.
  • The report argues that innovation can be spurred by democratizing access to data, allowing a diversity of stakeholders to “tap data, draw lessons and make business decisions,” which in turn helps companies and institutions respond to new trends and intelligence at varying levels of decision-making power.

Manyika, James, Michael Chui, Brad Brown, Jacques Bughin, Richard Dobbs, Charles Roxburgh, and Angela Hung Byers. Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity.  McKinsey & Company. May 2011. http://bit.ly/18Q5CSl.

  • This report argues that big data “will become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus, and that “leaders in every sector will have to grapple with the implications of big data.” 
  • The report offers five broad ways in which using big data can create value:
    • First, big data can unlock significant value by making information transparent and usable at much higher frequency.
    • Second, as organizations create and store more transactional data in digital form, they can collect more accurate and detailed performance information on everything from product inventories to sick days, and therefore expose variability and boost performance.
    • Third, big data allows ever-narrower segmentation of customers and therefore much more precisely tailored products or services.
    • Fourth, big sophisticated analytics can substantially improve decision-making.
    • Finally, big data can be used to improve the development of the next generation of products and services.

The Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for The Business of Government. “From Data to Decisions II: Building an Analytics Culture.” October 17, 2012. http://bit.ly/1cgc355.

  • This report discusses strategies for better leveraging data analysis to aid decision-making. The authors argue that, “Organizations that are successful at launching or expanding analytics program…systematically examine their processes and activities to ensure that everything they do clearly connects to what they set out to achieve, and they use that examination to pinpoint weaknesses or areas for improvement.”
  • While the report features many strategies for government decisions-makers, the central recommendation is that, “leaders incorporate analytics as a way of doing business, making data-driven decisions transparent and a fundamental approach to day-to-day management. When an analytics culture is built openly, and the lessons are applied routinely and shared widely, an agency can embed valuable management practices in its DNA, to the mutual benet of the agency and the public it serves.”

TechAmerica Foundation’s Federal Big Data Commission. “Demystifying Big Data: A Practical Guide to Transforming the Business of Government.” 2013. http://bit.ly/1aalUrs.

  • This report presents key big data imperatives that government agencies must address, the challenges and the opportunities posed by the growing volume of data and the value Big Data can provide. The discussion touches on the value of big data to businesses and organizational mission, presents case study examples of big data applications, technical underpinnings and public policy applications.
  • The authors argue that new digital information, “effectively captured, managed and analyzed, has the power to change every industry including cyber security, healthcare, transportation, education, and the sciences.” To ensure that this opportunity is realized, the report proposes a detailed big data strategy framework with the following steps: define, assess, plan, execute and review.

World Economic Forum. “Big Data, Big Impact: New Possibilities for International
Development.” 2012. http://bit.ly/17hrTKW.

  • This report examines the potential for channeling the “flood of data created every day by the interactions of billions of people using computers, GPS devices, cell phones, and medical devices” into “actionable information that can be used to identify needs, provide services, and predict and prevent crises for the benefit of low-income populations”
  • The report argues that, “To realise the mutual benefits of creating an environment for sharing mobile-generated data, all ecosystem actors must commit to active and open participation. Governments can take the lead in setting policy and legal frameworks that protect individuals and require contractors to make their data public. Development organisations can continue supporting governments and demonstrating both the public good and the business value that data philanthropy can deliver. And the private sector can move faster to create mechanisms for the sharing data that can benefit the public.”

To stay current on recent writings and developments on Big Data, please subscribe to the GovLab Digest.

Did we miss anything? Please submit reading recommendations to biblio@thegovlab.org or in the comments below.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Episode 3: Paywalls, Revenge Porn, and Massage Tables « Fastcase - February 3, 2014

    […] The Governance Lab has put together a list of selected readings on big data. The series is meant to provide an “annotated and curated collection of recommended works on […]

Leave a Reply