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Data Analytics in Government

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

Were that remark directed at government at any level for any function the response would be predictable - could anything be more broke than government. Probably the f-uped conjunction would work its way into most responses. It’s hard to believe that anyone within or associated with government could react differently, even if their outward response were subdued.

Just experiment with it. Think of any of several governmental functions such as military ventures, Social Security, Health, Medicare and Medicaid, mass transportation, highway infrastructure, Education, campaign financing, economic policy or census taking. If you think one step beyond any of these titles you will be inextricably drawn toward bizarre examples of government policy.

Clearly, government can be improved upon and yet government does not know how to use data. Rarely, will you find government employees applying their own data to every day government functions. I make an exception for data collecting and distribution which are not analyses toward policy ends. (O.K., the CPI and other indices are analyses for a purpose. How are the public releases going?) The present state of affairs is even more ironic. I refer, of course, to government’s use of contractors to analyze their data. Every such attempt leads to unsatisfactory results, unintended consequences and often to the abridgement of constitutional rights.

Government isn’t stupid. They respond in a reasonable fashion – don’t touch it, leave data alone. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Only persons collecting a government pension outside of academia need respond. Do any of you apply supervised machine learning in your present duties? I’m not surprised; but why not? I guess I know the answer.

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Comment by Alice Robbin on May 12, 2014 at 10:26am

Ken: Sure. I thought some more about what you and I both wrote, just as I heard the tail end of a very interesting interview on NPR with two former NSA employees who were "whistle blowers" (much earllier than Snowden) and have suffered for years as a result. Just after I wrote you I realized it was important to distinguish between government agencies, i.e., NSA and the statistical agencies. Clearly, the NSA and other intelligence gathering agencies do *not* put the data "out there" and we are now all aware of how important data were ignored in the years (period) leading up to 9/11 as well as the years following it. But these agencies do have the tools that you (seem to) imply they are not employing (1st version posting); so the issue isn't really about the quality of the data or the tools but something perhaps far more insidious, if not dangerous, to the well-being of our society. (This is, of course, not to say that data and tools are not encoded with values and norms,,,)

Comment by Ken Gold on May 12, 2014 at 10:02am

Alice, your comments are appreciated and you make some good points. I would like to expand on my opinion if you care to continue this discussion. Furthermore, my tone was unfair. I edited the 1st version but the original was posted. Ken, [email protected]

Comment by Alice Robbin on May 12, 2014 at 6:47am

This op-ed piece is way off-base, plain wrong, Government policy and the norms of government civil servants are rather clear about the role of government statistical agencies. The job is to collect data, to put it "out there" for analysis. It is not true that government agencies say "Don't touch it, leave data alone." Moreover, many advances in statistics and analysis have been the result of work done by government statisticians. The statistical agencies continually analyze the quality of the statistical series that they produce and are tasked with improving it; this they have done for many decades. They work closely with business company statisticians and academics through professional associations to make improvements. More to the point, Congress has significantly reduced their budgets, preventing the statistical agencies from competing with the private sector in terms of salaries and from making improvements that they know need to be made.  AR.  (P.S. I don't work for the government but I am a user of government data, I teach students how to understand and critically evaluate government data and am a member of professional associations whose members include active government agency participants.) 


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