Can Big Data make government cheaper?

The movie "Moneyball" celebrated a "Big Data" approach to maximizing returns from investments. Can Big Data do the same for government?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

For an institution that takes some 35% of our total gross domestic product, government gets little scrutiny to determine what programs are effective. This problem spans multiple sectors of the economy.

In a recent essay, two former budget officials ask why the government can't play Moneyball with our tax dollars. It's a good question when we consider the size of and impact of government.

Health care. The government spends about half the healthcare dollars. Congress has made it a point to derail the most efficient use of government dollars. But with the advent of electronic health records - more than half of new records are electronic - we will soon be able to monitor and compare treatments for thousands of different ailments, at a much lower cost than limited double-blind studies.

Social welfare. One purpose of the US Constitution - "promote the general welfare" - is reflected in the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars every year for programs ranging from prenatal care to food stamps to the National Institutes of Health. But which of these programs actually works? We don't know - but we could if we collected and analyzed data.

Defense. President Eisenhower - a former general - warned America against the military-industrial complex that now costs over $700 billion each year. But Congressman routinely fight Pentagon efforts to spend more wisely, while the generals often support pet projects of little use.

Can we handle the truth?
Of course data is only useful if we act on it. On some issues - climate change, abortion, education, drug policy and more - it seems many people have made up their minds and don't care what the data says.

But that may be changing. Today's young people - hammered by the Great Recession, the loss of middle class jobs and gridlock in Washington - may take a more pragmatic approach. Stress - like the Great Depression and WWII - seems to focus Americans on solutions rather than ideology.

And right now we could use more solutions and fewer slogans.

The Storage Bits take
The reality based community is a minority in Washington DC and in state capitals. Our legislators happily get up and spout whatever nonsense their campaign contributors require - God won't let climate change happen! - and do so with a straight face.

But keeping government a data free zone is a recipe for disaster. Thanks to big data we cannot only spy on every American but we could also be ensuring that our government programs are more cost-effective.

It is up to citizens to insist that their Congressmen look at data and explain exactly how their plans will produce better outcomes. Most citizens won't, but those who do can help move America forward.

Comments welcome, of course.  If government wasn't important, why did the Founding Fathers lay down their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to found one?

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