How Government Can Use Big Data to Solve Public Problems

Big data is opening up various opportunities for organisations to improve their services. How can the government use big data to improve the society?

What is “big data”?

How does the government use big data to improve the conditions within the society?

Big data in layman’s terms is analytics or business intelligence. From the word we refer to massive data that any institution, private or public, can use to improve their daily operations for the their own business or for the satisfaction of those of they’re serving.

Let’s assume you’re one of the local authorities social care worker providing social care for children, young people, and families over the last five years. All of a sudden, you’re seeing a significant increase of child abuse reports in your location. You strongly feel it’s a cause for alarm. You want to figure out the root cause of this scenario and find ways to address the deeper reason for an increasing number of child abuse cases.

In this scenario, you’d want to probably get big data from the last 50 years of your councils to see the underlying factors for instances when child abuse reports have increased or decreased in those years. You’d also want to check into how neighboring countries may be successfully addressing the issue with new policies put in place.

Here’s another example. Big data on traffic flow in different parts across London can be used to analyze the different conditions or level of traffic in different days of the week. A big sale at a mall done on a weekend may be a reason of a seriously heavy traffic. With this data in hand, the government can easily direct and implement rules to drivers so they can avoid roads that lead to the mall when they can.

The government needs to better understand what will make citizens’ lives better. Some more examples of how big data can help are the following:

  1. How changes to tax policy can predict impacts to the economy
  2. How the impact of technology will significantly affect the environment
  3. How food borne illnesses can pose potential threats to a community
  4. Which programs are effective in fighting child or adult obesity
  5. How incentive programs can encourage women to give birth

To answer the questions above, you need big data.

The government’s goals for using big data

With the advancement in technology, development of analytical tools, and more people with the know-how to initiate tactics for private and public sectors’ needs, we are now more capable to gather huge data. With data in huge quantities, the government is capable of analyzing them fast in order to create policies that address the behaviors of members in the society.

The government’s objective for using big data is simple: help people live better and safer in a prosperous manner. In this publication by the UK government, the 3 key areas big data should grasp are:

  1. Improving the experience of the citizen
  2. Making the government more efficient at delivering their services
  3. Boosting business and the wider economy

Opportunities the government looks into when using big data

There are plenty of opportunities for the government to maximize big data in order to achieve the three objectives above.

  1. Think about using big data in order to improve the condition of job seekers through good tools that will match their profiles to the right opportunities
  2. Big data can also be used in looking for solutions that should be more available today than two decades ago to answer people’s concerns that they face every day.
  3. Real estate concerns may be addressed by big data. What can the government do to help its citizens who are in flood or landslide-prone areas? How can people better interact with concerned agencies when they’re looking for new homes?
  4. The government can also play a big role by participating in research projects that will improve the health care conditions and benefits of people.
  5. Another opportunity that comes to mind is how big data can assist the government in building a software that will become a database for all reported data of abuses that the police has recorded.

It all looks promising, right? However, arriving at this destination isn’t free from challenges at all. You need to win people’s trust and confidence. This can be achieved through transparency. Aside from public trust, the government’s capability to handle big data is crucial. There must be a clear link between the two so that the government can truly say that they are improving and fast tracking their efforts to build a better and safe community for the people.

With all these relevant information in mind regarding how the government’s goals can be achieved with the opportunities presented to us by big data, let’s now look at evidences to which they actually worked.

8 Examples of How Big Data Solved Public Problems

1. The 360-degree view of the citizen methodology

This process helps government agencies improve their delivery of public services. Public sectors get a single, unified view of citizens by way of merging citizens’ information gathered in a system to match every single government agency or department. The goal here is to have a better understanding of how citizens interact with different agencies so that the government can be more proactive to its citizens.

British Columbia, a province in Canada, spent five years and $182M on the Integrated Case Management (ICM) digital transformation to enable social service ministries to see a more holistic view of citizens and provide better social services.

Learn more about this here

Do you know of any government doing this? Please share in the comments if you do.

2. Chicago uses new technology to solve a very old urban problem: rats

It’s amazing to see that with a 12-years’ worth of data involving resident’s complaints on rodent infestation had led engineers to where these pests are mostly likely breeding. The report was shared to the city’s sanitation team which cleaned up the rat-infested areas. Now, it’s difficult to spot a rat in Chicago.

Learn more about this here

Do you know of any other public service examples of using data to solve a problem? Please share in the comments.

3. Tax and social security fraud control

Believe it or not, ordinary people can commit fraud against their tax and social security obligations. With big data tools, abnormal behaviour patterns by citizens have been detected which lead to suspicious transactions. As an example, the government can assess someone applying for security benefits on whether he/she is really qualified to get one or just wanted to use it to spend on gambling.

Do you think this is a good use of big data? Or is it too 'big-brothery? Let me know what you think in the comments.

4. A safe country with big data

Big data on when and where violent crime has occurred or is happening is crucial for local authorities to understand. As an example, the Las Vegas police used the Smart Policing Initiative after data has been gathered to evaluate which blocks in town are highly susceptible to violent crimes.

To learn more about big data and policing, check out this white paper by Alexander Babuta titled "Big Data and Policing An Assessment of Law Enforcement Requirements, Expectations and Priorities".

Click here to read this white paper.

5. Local authorities maximizing big data

Governments all over the world are now using data analytics to understand factors that would lead to a potential child abuse. This emerging trend on how local authorities are being equipped with this type of insights allow them to have a more preventative approach not just on child abuse, but also on other issues like children who are most likely not to complete their education.

To read more case studies about how local authorities are using big data to make services more personalised, effective and efficient, check out this white paper by Tom Symons from Nesta on the subject.

Click here to read this white paper.

6. Combining data sets from across local government and the wider public sector

Governments want a deeper understanding of the population level, and this is possible when councils implement data warehousing so that the service providers on the frontline receive a more complex background of the people receiving services. It’s inevitable that severable agencies in government could work together when addressing a citizen’s concern, and having all of this citizen’s vital information in one place for any process should be practiced.

The Local Government Association helps supports a number of initiatives that help local authorities to develop the best data management practices and to encourage wider re-use between councils, their delivery partners and the wider general public.

To find out how you can get involved, click here.

7. Collecting data for smart cities

Councils like Bristol, Glasgow and Milton Keynes take an approach in which they use data from citizens that show they want to navigate or experience places. Many of the technologies they have used through acquiring big data have allowed them to track air pollution and maximize the need of street lights.

Smart cities face serious challenges prior to widespread acceptance, but their integrated use of Big Data, IoT, and other technologies to solve contemporary urban issues should eventually lead to their adoption.

To read more case studies on the use of big data in smart cities, click here.

8. Improving services through geo-spatial data

One of the most established areas of data analytics in government is using geo-spatial data to improve public services. An example of this is optimizing waste collection routes in a manner that for every £1 expense for the use geo-spatial data, there is a £4 return.

Big Data Gone Bad?

Behind every innovation, there are some that leave a bitter taste in your mouth. This is one of them... reminds me of the Black Mirror episode called Nosedive.

(scary stuff!)

This is one move to give you some chills. China is using big data to rate its citizens for their trustworthiness as the government is planning to launch its Social Credit System in 2020. The Chinese government is currently taking the watch and learn approach by giving a license to eight private companies to develop  systems for social credit scores.


To conclude, big data is vital for the government’s goal of providing a better and safer life for all its citizens. But there’s a catch. They have to earn public trust by being transparent, and proving they have what it takes to handle big data” responsibly”.

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