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Data-driven decision-making in the face of catastrophe

Seeking better disaster management, governments strive to turn data insights into action. Also: The Equifax breach, Amazon's 'HQ2' and federal regs for driverless cars.

Big data can mean big business. That much we know.

But as Texas copes with the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged the state late last month, and with Irma barreling over the Caribbean toward Florida, and Mexico shaken by the most powerful earthquake in 100 years, can mining vast amounts of data also help save lives from the fury of natural disasters? Evacuate cities before floodwaters inundate neighborhoods? Find and rescue victims from rubble?

That's certainly the hope. Governments are looking to the same sophisticated analytics techniques that are predicting -- with fast-improving accuracy -- the paths and destruction potential of increasingly fearsome storms to better prepare for and tend to their constituents' needs during calamities. But whether such data-driven decision-making is actually making a difference is, in 2017, an open question.

"I'd say it's spotty," said Michael Barnes, an analyst at Forrester Research. "It's making a difference in certain situations and scenarios. I think there's a lot more that [government] agencies can and will do."

Barnes works with organizations to adopt new technologies and the accompanying business processes. The challenges facing many agencies tasked with disaster management is "an organizational inability to act quickly on the data and the insights that they're deriving from that data," he told me via Skype from his home base in Sydney.

Government agencies the world over know they need to get with the data-driven-decision-making program, Barnes said -- they need to crunch reams of data, unlock insights from it and transform those insights into action. They're getting there, but "they know they need to do better."

Some have learned how, said Jennifer Belissent, a Forrester analyst who lives in eastern France, in a Skype interview. For example, Jakarta, Indonesia's low-lying, flood-prone capital, used text analytics to decipher social media posts and get early warnings of the most susceptible areas.

"People would say things like, 'Floodwaters rising in this neighborhood.' Or [government officials] would geolocate the tweets and be able to look for indications that floodwaters might be rising," Belissent said.

"If they used that kind of thing in Houston, maybe there could have been earlier warning signs that there were going to be problematic neighborhoods," she said, referring to the catastrophic flooding in the city amid Harvey's unrelenting rain.

The right mindset

Many public-sector organizations simply aren't good at navigating the data-insight-action path, Barnes said, because they don't have the right mindset. They need to fundamentally change how they work to do data-driven decision-making first by developing an "appreciation for the information and the sources of that information." That requires getting a grip on emerging technologies like the internet of things and sensors -- but also more established platforms like social media and mobile networks.

Barnes called that the "bottom-up" half of the solution. "Top-down" is getting executives to make acting on insights a part of the organizational mission. That's the harder part, so most agencies concentrate on the first half.

"It's a heck of a lot harder to focus on that organizational change in that leadership [level]. It just takes a lot longer," Barnes said.

To achieve that big change, he said, agencies need to start with a discrete problem that needs solving; they should identify a particular service or a need their constituents have. For instance, if residents need early warnings about a powerful storm so they can evacuate to safer ground, "it becomes a case of getting creative about what data or what insights you have access to, what other sources -- things like mobile apps or social feeds," Barnes said.

As an example of a government doing a crack job of turning data insight into action, Barnes cited the Australian state of Victoria, where the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning is using predictive analytics software to simulate bushfires and improve things like prevention and response planning.

"That's something that constituents certainly in the affected areas can recognize the impact of and the value of -- immediately," he said. "You can't really start with the organizational change. You have to start with some very clear objectives and some well-defined and targeted data sets to impact those objectives."

Dearth of analytics talent

Belissent said municipal governments also struggle with getting the right talent to implement, manage and understand data analytics systems. She cited a recent survey in which Forrester asked public- and private-sector organizations whether they did a good job attracting, hiring, training and retaining people with sought-after data and analytics skills: Sixty-eight percent of private-sector companies said yes, while just 39% of local governments did.

"So we're seeing that they're having trouble getting that talent in-house," Belissent said.

Tight budgets perpetually cast a long shadow on municipal governments -- "Obviously, we hear that often," she said -- but looming just as large is the shifting tech landscape. Agencies just can't keep up -- which is understandable, given the swift pace that technologies are evolving.

"Those of us who follow the data and analytics market know that things that were academic projects just a few years ago are widely adopted across companies today," Belissent said. "But governments don't necessarily move that fast."

What can help them move faster, she said, are what Forrester calls "insights service providers." This is a broad range of for-profit organizations -- management consultancies such as Deloitte, for example, or IT service providers such as Capgemini -- that can provide governments with the required data analytics expertise and technology platforms.

One such organization is Dalberg Data Insights, which is working with Brazil's Ministry of Health to mitigate the spread of the Zika virus. "And they're doing that by helping them access telco data and look at human flows, human mobility, through cellphone data," Belissent said.

Government agencies may need help turning insights dug from data into action that helps their constituents before and after natural disasters, but Barnes said every one he's spoken to understands its dire importance.

"They don't need any type of evangelizing of the importance of data from as many sources as possible and the value of things like algorithms and machine learning to actually make their decision-making more accurate and quicker," Barnes said. 

CIO news roundup for week of Sept. 4

While Irma approached Florida and SearchCIO looked into data-driven decision-making by government agencies, here's what was making headlines.

Equifax breach may affect 143 million consumers. Credit-reporting company Equifax Inc. reported this week that hackers potentially compromised the personal information for 143 million of its U.S. customers. The breach tapped into Equifax systems containing consumers' names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and addresses. "This is the nightmare scenario -- all four pieces of information in one place," John Ulzheimer, a credit specialist and former manager at Equifax, told The Wall Street Journal. An internal investigation revealed hackers exploited vulnerabilities to gain access to Equifax files from mid-May through July. Equifax discovered the breach July 29. Company representatives said in a statement that the breach investigation remains ongoing, but Equifax has found "no evidence" of unauthorized activity in its core consumer or commercial credit-reporting databases.

Amazon to build a second headquarters. Amazon announced plans to open a second headquarters outside of its home base of Seattle, kicking off what is likely to be a fierce competition among major U.S. cities to win the lucrative bid. Amazon estimates its investments in Seattle from 2010 through 2016 resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city's economy. The new headquarters "will bring billions of dollars in upfront and ongoing investments, and tens of thousands of high-paying jobs," Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement announcing the project. The e-commerce giant has very specific preferences for its "HQ2" project site, including a metropolitan area with more than 1 million residents and a "business-friendly" environment. Amazon expects to invest over $5 billion in the construction of its new headquarters.

U.S. House passes SELF DRIVE Act. The House of Representatives this week laid out the basic framework to regulate autonomous vehicles when it passed the SELF DRIVE Act with bipartisan support. The act is a response to the lack of congressional oversight that has led states to develop their own patchwork of laws and guidelines regulating the use of self-driving cars. Under the SELF DRIVE legislation, federal government rules would trump those developed by states and give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration power to regulate self-driving vehicle design, construction and performance. The act also includes consumer data privacy protections: Under the bill, self-driving car companies must have "privacy plans" describing how they'll collect, use and store data. The Senate will now have to pass its own version of the bill so both houses can develop a compromise legislation to present to the president for approval.

Senior site editor Ben Cole contributed to this week's Searchlight.

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