In the story of Hansel and Gretel, Hansel has the brilliant foresight to leave breadcrumbs on the winding forest path so that he and his sister may find their way home again. Unfortunately his plan did not take into account the hungry birds that used his path markers for other more nourishing needs. In a similar but different manner, Americans have for years been leaving electronic breadcrumbs (from smartphones, social media postings, purchase records, emails, traffic sensors, GPS units, etc.) behind us as we travel along our ever-more technologically-laden path. And this isn't a handful of breadcrumbs that can lead us back to where we started; rather we’re looking at a solar-sized pile of data (metaphorically speaking) which, once we harness it, could propel us into the future. This is Big Data within which NPR’s Adam Frank believes is a “hyper-resolution map of the world’s behavior in space and time.”
Imagine if all the traffic sensors, traffic cameras, computers in cars, and drivers’ smartphones communicated with one another to create an interconnected network of information from which citizens and transit agencies could know of hazards, alternate routes, and or even alternate modes of transportation for today’s trip. The problem has been for many years not that we didn't use all this data we were creating but that we hadn't had the technology to make sense of it. Now scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, and politicians are realizing that the technology is closer than ever before, and policy makers, in D.C. particularly, would be wise to keep abreast of Big Data’s massive potential. Though real world applications in Big Data transportation are best seen on the local and regional levels, the federal government, itself a major manufacturer of data, has a key role in policy making. According to a report from the TechAmerica Foundation called “Demystifying Big Data”, the federal role is one of support, facilitation, and standardization, i.e. to bring more collaboration between agencies, actively support and encourage data science talent, and proactively address the perennial concern over security and personal privacy.
It should first be mentioned that TechAmerica, similar to the Brookings Institute, is a non-profit, non-partisan group made up of high-ranking men and women from tech-industry leaders, such as Amazon, Lockheed Martin, IBM, and Microsoft. Their primary intent for this report was to make the concept of Big Data more manageable to the masses and share best practices from the governments which have already benefited from it. Doing this, they hope to “provide a pragmatic road map for adoption.”
Big Data is still, for the most part, a big unknown that thinkers are now just confidently theorizing on its potential. There are some examples out there of Big Data being utilized to better transportation. In an effort with IBM and the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, a new, smarter transportation system provides “near real-time vehicle visualization, schedule analytics, and arrival prediction capabilities.” The University of California Irvine has developed an ultra-high resolution, high performance, large format visualization system called Hiperwall, which is especially able to handle large amounts of data, like real-time traffic patterns, with unprecedented flexibility. How can the federal government help similar and future Big Data projects? To start, Washington should create within itself an atmosphere of collaboration. The TechAmerica report states that “decision-making in Congress and the Administration often is accomplished without the benefit of key information and without using the power of Big Data,” further suggesting, as one part of the solution, for each agency to essentially create an official Big Data officer. This would create a common link among all agencies which would not only encourage the sharing of procedures and hardware, but also would streamline data connectivity that would give citizens and the government itself a more integrated interface.
Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said in 2010 that the world creates 5 exabytes of data every two days, which is roughly the same amount of information we created from the dawn of civilization to 2003! Thus, continuous investment in education and innovation, federally and locally, is crucial in keeping pace with or even ahead of the technological curve. The federal government needs to create policy that brings Big Data analytics into the mainstream and that provides a fertile ground for innovation and professionalism that keeps America globally competitive. One solution would be for government to collaborate with universities to formally create a curriculum track for data scientists focused on Big Data analytics. The TechAmerica report suggests that “intellectual curiosity” should be encouraged so that analytic thinking, rather than query-answer (transaction) thinking, becomes paramount in the tech world. Doing this along with incentives and government internships would bring legitimacy to the field, which would put more minds to work on Big Data’s massive potential.
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Continual innovation will also need to be applied to personal privacy as Big Data is becoming more and more accessible to transit agencies, retailers, and private entrepreneurs. I believe that Big Data will become a part of every American’s life whether they see Big Brother in it or not, but it is nevertheless wise to have an iterative, cautious approach when dealing with security and increased access. The TechAmerica report acknowledges over 40 privacy laws exist in the US, including the Privacy Act of 1974 and legislation for health and finance information, and it basically encourages the US to strengthen its current trajectory. One suggestion was to standardize the security procedures across the board which would build citizens’ confidence in and simplify such a complex system.
The good news is that the federal government has already started their research and investment into the potential of Big Data. A 2012 fact sheet from the White House lists 14 pages worth of different agencies’ Big Data projects. With the right policy that enables local innovation through standardization, inter-agency collaboration, investments in education and privacy enhancements; America can efficiently harness the potential that Big Data promises.