Big Data and the Government: Friend not foe

The British Government recently launched ‘verify,’ a scheme that allows citizens to prove their identity online. The public reaction was less than enthusiastic. The Times, a reputable British newspaper, exclaimed in its headline ‘Virtual ID for everyone – Privacy fears over vast expansion of online services.’ In the post-Snowden environment it is privacy campaigners not data advocates who get the rub of the green.

With government under suspicion, citizens and businesses must be more vocal in explaining how big data can improve people’s lives. Online identity assurance is a good thing. It expands the range of public services that can be offered over the internet. This means less tedious in person meetings and the end of 3 hour queues to replace one’s driving license or passport. It will save the government money; providing services online is 20 times cheaper than over the phone and 50 times cheaper than face to face.

This requires databases full of our personal details and it is here where privacy campaigners start grumbling. For them large databases full of personal information presage an Orwellian nightmare. Why else would governments seek to compile information on its law-abiding citizens but for nefarious reasons?

These fears are misplaced. Government already has a lot of data on us, it’s just not organized efficiently. Businesses already have a lot of data on us and they mostly use it to provide us a better service.

The real danger here is that privacy campaigners crowd out the benefits of big data for government from the public conversation. Yes, data can be used for snooping on citizens but better information leads to better decision making, and nowhere is this more needed than public policy.

Previously governments have lacked the quantity and quality of information to model complex social phenomena. But this is changing. 90% of all the data the world has ever produced was created in the last 2 years. From computers to cell phones, and soon watches to fridges, the ‘Internet of Things,’ will create an overwhelming stream of information.

Recent algorithmic developments combined with improvements in computing power and storage capacity mean that we can analyze policy problems in far more detail. We can find new patterns between variables never before observed, allowing us to make better predictions. In practice this can lead to intervention in problems before they spiral out of control.

Ex-Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg used data from numerous municipal databases to predict buildings that posed fire hazards. Previously inspections were in the order that they were called in. Big data allowed inspectors to target their time on buildings most likely to burst into flames. The result was that 70% of inspected buildings were vacated rather than 13% previously, a huge improvement in efficiency.

The potential of big data in public policy ranges from the prosaic to the lifesaving: to diminish terrorism and crime, more energy efficiency, fewer traffic jams, controlling financial crises. It can deliver medicines that are tailored to the lifestyle or even genetic makeup of the patient, thereby increasing effectiveness and reducing unwanted side effects. All in all, providing better fitting services to citizens.

As privacy campaigners have highlighted the more data that is generated, stored and interpreted, the easier it is to find out about each individual’s behavior. But why is this taken as inexorably bad? It is only dangerous if those using this new information are dangerous. The Snowden revelations, while shocking in scope, did not show the US government as fundamentally malevolent. Overzealous, yes, evil, no. If you’re not breaking the law, do you still think the government is still out to get you?

My answer would be no. And my answer remains no even if you equip the government with better tools for monitoring its citizens.

So let’s not let our fears get the better of us. Privacy is important but one must balance its intrinsic worth against the benefits of a smarter society. When big data can help solve so many of the ills we see around us, we should be under no illusion that our inaction to use it has very real consequences as well.

Justin Ibbett, UK


Justin currently studies public policy at the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He has a BA in History from Oxford University and a Masters in Public Administration from the London School of Economics. In between the two he worked in M&A as an investment banker.

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