April 10, 2012, 12:03 PM — The release of a new whitepaper is promising "economic benefits equivalent to £111.5m per day by 2017, as well as creating 58,000 jobs" for the UK, 2,000 in the public sector, but is that promise something that can actually be delivered?
I was a little concerned when I read the headlines around the release of the joint SAS UK &Ireland/Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) report, "Data Equity: Unlocking the value of big data," a report that touted an additional £216 billion [US$341.9/€261.6 billion] for the UK economy over the next five years, primarily through the creation of new jobs, increased efficiency, and better connectivity to customers.
Now, I am as big a fanboy for big data as anyone, but even this news gave me pause. While such economic windfalls are certainly possible (and most definitely welcome), this seems rather optimistic to me.
For one thing, there's this notion of increased efficiency, which one of the report's advocates cited as a source for real savings for the public sector.
In a guest article over at The Guardian, SAS UK & Ireland Director Sales Support Andy Cutler specifically called out the efficiency benefits:
It's that last point that sticks out the most for me. Because seeing data as a commodity is not something that, unfortunately, politicians and policy makers often do.
Take a recent example here in the U.S.: NPR is reporting today that California's prescription-drug monitoring program, which has been around since 1939 (and online since 1998) is in danger of being eliminated. Indeed, the agency that managed the database, which tracks prescriptions for patients in that state and helps prevents abuses such as addictive overmedication, hoarding, or diversion of meds to the black market, has already been given the ax.
"Nonetheless, in January, the state laid off or transferred the nine people who operated the prescription database. Now there's a lone civil servant--Mike Small, program manager for the Law Enforcement Support Program--at the Department of Justice keeping it from going dark."
Thus far, Small has been able to keep the database going, but with his time paid for by year-to-year grants, it is not clear how long this situation will go on.
California's prescription database is not big data, really, but it does reflect the attitudes policymakers have towards data and those that manage it: they don't often understand the data, or its importance. In the drive to cut budgets in the public sector, I am finding it a little hard to imagine that any efficiencies realized from big data (and there are many, I am sure) will be channeled back into jobs. And that's in the U.S.--I can't imagine how that would happen in the UK and Ireland, which are both feeling the pinch of austerity measures.
More likely, I suspect, is that savings will be shunted into other parts of the budget, like roads or a governor's mansion renovation.
There's also the problem with the expense of these data jobs. Right now, data scientists and architects are commanding premium salaries in the private sector. How exactly will the public sector attract such workers?
This whitepaper isn't completely out of hand… but it paints a very rosy picture that relies on the economics of IT hardware and software and fails to take into account the realities of political perceptions of data and why its a valuable commodity.
It's something everyone on the big data sector must address if we are ever to see such benefits.
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