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Data analytics in government efforts lack structure

Data analytics in government agencies lack organization, focusing on immediate problems instead of attacking underlying causes without a unified strategy or system.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The U.S. government is adept at collecting massive amounts of data. Efforts to deploy data analytics in government agencies, however, can be weak and disorganized.

At some agencies, officials say there's a lack of a cohesive system for government analytics and management.

"I recently learned that we have no real concept of data archiving, and data backup and protection," said Bobby Saxon, CTO at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

"We have archived everything in every place," Saxon said. "It's really just wasted data right now."

Data analytics struggles

Speaking on a panel about data analytics in government at the annual MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality (CDOIQ) Symposium at the university's Tang Center, Saxon spoke on the struggles his agency has with analytics.

CMS, finally moving out of crisis mode after dealing with widely publicized IT problems with its healthcare.gov website, has an "OK" structure for data analytics and management, Saxon said.

While Saxon said he and his colleagues are working to improve the situation, currently the organization tends to rely on outside vendors to deal with difficult and pressing analytics problems.

"In the world of predictive analytics, typically the average vendor or subject expert will ask what are your questions, and go off and try to solve questions for you, and then ask if you have any more questions," Saxon said.

Panelists at the annual MIT CDOIQ Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.
Left to right: Bobby Saxon, CTO, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; John Eltinge, U.S. Census Bureau; and Mark Krzysko of the Department of Defense at the annual MIT CDOIQ Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.

Outside help costly

Ultimately, while government analytics problems tend to be fixed to some extent, the IT corrections solutions can take weeks, and often simply are too expensive in the long term, Saxon explained.

I recently learned that we have no real concept of data archiving, and data backup and protection.
Bobby SaxonCTO, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

In addition, employees aren't learning additional data analytics in government techniques, and can't immerse themselves in the problems at hand and actually be able to discover the root issues of what might be going wrong.

Panel moderator Mark Krzysko of the Department of Defense's Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, noted a similar problem in his agency.

Krzysko, who is deputy director of enterprise information there, said he had honed a personal strategy in his early years with the agency: "Use the tools they've given you."

When a data dilemma arose, often he might see employees making calls to the Air Force or the Army for answers, instead of relying on their own government analytics tools, he said.

The panel, "Data Analytics to Solve Government Problems," was part of the 12th Annual MIT CDOIQ Symposium, held July 18 to 20.

The panel also included John Eltinge, assistant director of research and methodology at the United States Census Bureau.

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