With plenty of headlines about failed government projects, one could be forgiven for thinking that the public sector is unable to innovate – especially if the subject is something like Big Data – but the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais is determined to become a leading light in how governmental bodies in the country can use data analytics to improve public administration.
The Office of Strategic Priorities in Minas Gerais started its Big Data journey in 2011 by a team that was, in practice, a skunkworks department focused on making the most out of statistical data. The team has come a long way since, with tools open to government departments and citizens such as the recently launched DataViva.info, a platform that opens data for exports and occupations for the entire formal sector of the Brazilian economy.
According to subsecretary of state at the Minas Gerais government Glaucia Alves Macedo, the products created by the Strategic Priorities team are “gift packaging for data.” These scalable tools include Minas in Numbers, a portal fed with data that is publicly-available and have the objective to inform business leaders, all the way to the state governor – and enable them to make better decisions.
“When we invested in a friendly layout and a combined method to present data, we could reveal information in a way people are keen to use it,” Macedo says.
Macedo recalls a recent lecture she gave about use of data in a little countryside town in Minas Gerais. In a test comparison, she demonstrated the performance indicators in education to the Mayor for his municipality, with average proficiency of the region in educational terms, comparing it with the state average and other schools in the same region.
“I said to the Mayor: ‘What would you say about this information? You could get your Education Secretary to agree, for example, performance targets and ways to move forward to see which school does best and why, what needs to be improved.’ He thought it was a good idea,” Macedo says.
“Minas in Numbers is not meant to be something that comes up with something unknown as the data is already available, but package it in a way that enables us to create a new perspective on things, to give the data a fresh look,” she adds.
Today, twenty eight indicators populate the Minas in Numbers portal. The information generated through the portal can be used by public sector managers that are interested in information as well as citizens who want to know more about the performance of the public administration.
Creating the need for insights
Macedo moved to the Strategic Priorities Office in 2011 from the Ministry of Social Development in Brasília where she had been working as an economist, with a goal of making sense of the information and conveying it in an accessible way, which seemed like a tall order at first.
“I knew nothing about technology, I actually understand very little of it, as my focus is cconomics and demographics. But when I stated working for the state of Minas Gerais, the description of the issue I'd deal with was: ‘We have a problem because we have a lot of statistics, we use a lot of folks to calculate statistics, but we have nothing structured to allow people who don’t understand statistics to access that information ‘,” Macedo recalls.
When putting an action plan together, Macedo realized that the tools available were basically centered in a “very tough” statistics database, but users had to be trained in statistics to be able to operate it or understand where to find specific pieces of the jigsaw such as information from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), data from the Ministry of Labour and Employment - which were provided separately and lived on different platforms.
“We looked at the tools we had and realized that we were falling in the same traps that the public sector usually falls , which is to create a million tools and websites - and the poor citizen has to go around looking for things. This is what started the Minas in Numbers portal,” says Macedo.
“If we think of a manager who does not need to be an expert in numbers or technology - and I always say that managers need to know about management and not necessarily need to understand statistics or IT - our role was to organize a product where information would be an asset to these managers in the public service,” she adds.
“But then you have challenges: I worked for seven years in the in the federal government, where we also designed some tools based on open software. I had the bad reputation of being the person people would think: ‘here comes that bore with those indicators I don't understand’.”
Preparing to deliver
Macedo needed to bring a solution to line of business managers and started to think of how to implement it instead of creating a problem – she came from the premise that too much information that is not organized is the same as nothing. The initial target information was then organized with the help of three staff members.
“We would say something like: ‘What indicators we can work on today?’ We had to organize what we already had and then create the need for that data. For example, a secretary at a council closing supplier agreements every day only worries about whether the money from the Mayor’s office is in the account, if the paperwork has been sent and so on,” Macedo explains.
“These managers don't have a declared, open need for the kind of information that we can provide. So we thought we should tackle one problem at a time and show results as opposed to go around asking people for their databases,” she adds.
Macedo’s team then went after the publicly available information and started to think about how to create something that would be useful and attractive to public sector managers. Those findings came with the realization that different types of skill would have to be created.
From the IT side, four people were trained up in the tool used for data processing, ClickView. From the business side, a qualified economist was trained up to use databases from different departments. Today, this staff member can operate the various databases data is extracted from and in the process, he also learned how to convey requirements to the IT department – which, according to Macedo, was a difficulty in the early stages of the project.
“It was hard to translate our needs. We would say, ‘I want to see these indicators represented in this and that way’ then when we saw the final product developed in the shape of an application or graphics we thought: ‘Hm, that was not exactly what I wanted,’” says Macedo.
“Plus there are issues around cost, reworking the project and worst of all, waste of time. That’s why we started investing in enabling our own team to develop things internally – then my my team and IT worked together to arrive at the format that we used for the Results Map, which is at the core of the Minas in Numbers Project,” she adds.
However, the most difficult part of getting the Big Data projects off the ground in the Minas government was to define the scope of the project. As the Strategic Priorities team didn’t have a defined internal customer within the government, there was no fixed agenda around aspects such as what information should be represented in charts or infographics.
“That lack of a clear scope complicated things for us at the start. Now, even though we are not a part of the IT department, something that made life a lot easier for us was training people from our side in IT development: that made a real difference in our productivity, in our ability to be more agile and add more information to our database,” says Macedo.
"We had many ups and downs in the development of our Big Data strategy due to the uncertainties around scope."
- Glaucia Macedo, subsecretary of state, Minas Gerais government
Results and future opportunities
According to Macedo, as the portal becomes more stable and is used by other departments, the more consistent information will be.
“For example, some stats from the Ministry of Health are updated daily, so if I were to present that data to the Health Secretary for monthly meetings with the governor, an indicator that was generated on births and deaths three days before the meeting will be different to what is generated on the day. Neither data set is wrong, but [outdated information] puts the governor in a vulnerable position to make decisions,” Macedo says.
“So the more we get to structure, automate and implement more structured processes to add data to the Results Map, the more sustainable and independent the tool will be within the government,” she points out.
Macedo concedes that public sector decision makers do not know the power of information, so her team has to convey the benefits. However, she points out that the Strategic Priorities work around Big Data has been well received everywhere in the state departments the tool has been presented to. In her opinion, the issue is much more to do with difficulties around the use of the information, than the tool her team has designed.
“I presented the Minas in Numbers project to the Social Development department of the state.with examples of indicators around income poverty, to try to attract these people to use the tool. So far we don't have any information that is not in the public domain, but I would love to have, for example, data on the number of programs run by different departments and the number of beneficiaries,” she says.
“I would like to get a public sector manager in departments such as Tourism, and be told that I can find the daily occupancy rates in hotels – and if there isn't a way of doing it, go to associations that have the data and work with them to create a visual representation of that information. But we still have some way to go in that regard.”
Citizens - an audience that wasn't the initial target for the project – are also using the data as a transparency tool. Feedback from that user group has been positive – the website is user-friendly and enables different ways to view the data with maps, charts and tables.
“We think that the bigger the volume of information we have, the more we will have the ability to attract users as a tool to drive transparency and provide information about public sector management. We will add more indicators to the Results Map, but we have another project that will put numbers into words - it is really an attempt to translate all the information we have into something extremely valuable,” Macedo predicts.
“For example, if I told you about the life expectancy at birth of someone in Minas is one thing. But what if I told you something like, "did you know that people in Minas live longer than people in Espirito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo?" You process the information in a totally different way. We believe that providing textual, interpreted and visual information really is the way to go in terms of using data to drive transparency,” she adds.
As well as better access to information, the Results Map has also brought savings in personnel. About a dozen people were solely dedicated to analyzing data prior to the Project and today, only three members of staff handle the Project.
“The more we automate the data feeds and the presentation of the data, fewer people will have to keep investing time to do that and can do other valuable work,” Macedo says.
“We also didn't need to spend much. In our case, the biggest cost was personnel - which in the public sector you tend to underestimate - plus the ClickView licenses that we use. But the main thing is not to do with money, but having engaged people. And you obviously need to have a technology base that works.”
The journey of the Minas Gerais government around Big Data is far from finished, but Macedo says the outcome of the Big Data projects – which until recently, were Just an experiment – have exceeded the expectations.
“In order to do something like the projects we are leading, there needs to be an initial decision and only a handful of governments have taken the step of experimenting like this. I, for one, am very happy to be in an environment where I was allowed to experiment until we arrived at a product that I can say that is successful,” says Macedo.
“But there's something about the importance of believing in the potential of the information - only when you believe in it, you start to make progress,” she adds.
Based on her personal experience in the last couple of years around advanced data analytics, Macedo has some valuable words of advice to those looking to start on a similar path:
“Good is better than great. It is better to start somewhere, make a choice, than not do anything. Perhaps one important tip based on our story, is the understanding from the IT staff that people from other lines of business may sometimes not be able to put rquirements into technical terms, but they know what has to be done - it is not the tool that is the solution, but the content. That is what really matters.”
Read more: In our first chapter of a series about the use of Big Data by the government of Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, we cover the story of Data Viva.info, a recently-launched platform that opens data for exports and occupations for the entire formal sector of the Brazilian economy. Click here to read the full article.
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