It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities. President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013
In this interview with Steve Koonin, Director of NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress and former Undersecretary of Energy for Science, we talk about the big thing happening in technology enabling smarter government, namely big data, the oil of the 21st century. In this lively half hour discussion, we talk about the technological developments driving the rise of big data, how big data changes the ways we govern, the impact of big data on innovation and entrepreneurship, the challenges and limits of using big data effectively, and how to train the next generation of data-savvy decisionmaker who can solve problems.We also brainstorm about what it would take to create a "politfact for urban data" and how to engage citizens in designing smart cities from the bottom up as well as about the need to get both private and public sector using data in conversation together.
The "wiring of the world," says Koonin is transforming society. Today we have cheap low cost sensors in phones and that we can install throughout our environement. And we have the technology to transmit and store the data they provide us. We can analyze the massive amounts of data that can be collected about the physical world and about us.
We need data in governance. "When you get to the highest level policy tables," Koonin explains, the jobs are so broad that you can't get into the details. They are also highly political. Hence discussions are, if not fact free, than fact lite." With data in hand, we can make government more efficient, make decisions on the basis of better information, including robust models, and give citizens a stick with which to hold government more accountable. "If I knew that my bus service was only half as efficient as the folks across town," says Koonin, "that might change the way I petition the government." Data also empowers citizens to change their own behavior and decide to walk or carpool.
But data can also be misleading. "If you're smart, big data can make you seem smart," Koonin adds, "but if you're dumb big data only makes you dumber." It is key to understand how to ask the questions of the vast quantities of heterogeneous data increasingly availble to us. And it is key to develop a knowledge of how to use data lest we confuse correlation with causation. Koonin talks thoughtfully about how to evolve our approaches to using big data to mitigate the risk of hubris and govern more thoughtfully.