April 03, 2014
by Andy Medici, Federal Times

As federal agencies generally incorporate Big Data into their IT strategies, those agencies concerned with health care are facing their own hurdles. A majority of IT professionals at those agencies believe that Big Data will lead to better patient care and lower costs, but less than a third believe their agencies have clued-in senior managers.

The numbers come from a MeriTalk survey of 150 federal IT professionals at health care agencies. More specifically:

■ 62 percent believe Big Data will help improve patient care;

■ 63 percent believe Big Data will help track and manage the health care of the public;

■ 59 percent say their agency missions will depend on Big Data within five years;

■ 34 percent work for agencies that have made the necessary investments for using Big Data, and;

■ 29 percent say their agency has educated senior management on Big Data issues.

That means those agencies have a lot of catching up to do, according to Audie Hittle, the chief technology officer for federal issues for IT contractor EMC Isilon.

The intersection of Big Data and cybersecurity is an area where agencies are making progress through more advanced security systems and by building security requirements into Big Data infrastructure, Hittle said.

While some agencies have deep pockets of expertise in Big Data, others should reach out to the contractor community and private sector to decide what their Big Data priorities should be, Hittle said. Even as agencies recover partially from sequestration, years of tight budgets have pushed some Big Data projects farther down on the agency to-do list.

“One of the biggest challenges agencies are facing is funding, and that is not something that is easily overcome,” Hittle said.

Mike Tanner, president of Hitachi Data Systems Federal, encouraged agencies to continue modernizing systems.

“Despite the reduced budgetary pressure, agencies must continue to seek ways to keep costs down by decommissioning legacy applications and merging key data capabilities,” Tanner said.

He said the complexity, volume and types of data are unprecedented, and prevent agencies from using a one-size-fits all approach to modernizing systems. Meanwhile, agencies continue to pour resources into older systems.

“This unnecessary spending is amplified by the unrelenting pressure from all sides to ‘do more with less.’ The time has come for agencies to stop implementing the ‘rip and replace’ model and invest in infrastructures and solutions that work with existing systems,” Tanner said.

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector, said the issues of budgets, management education and culture are interconnected, and agencies must work holistically to tackle Big Data challenges. They also must be willing to accept and act on the insights they get from analyzing the data, even the surprising ones.

“It may change the way you make decisions about budgeting, and it may reveal that some activities are redundant when before you didn’t have the visibility to see that,” Hodgkins said.

People making the ultimate funding decisions —within agencies and in Congress —may not have the expertise or knowledge to understand how the systems work. Legislation that would give agency CIOs more power would help produce better IT outcomes, he added.

“You have to have the education before you are going to get the resources you fully need,” Hodgkins said.

With the partial rollback of sequestration and the enactment of a year-round budget, agencies finally have the certainty they need to make long-term investments in Big Data technologies, he said.

“We have returned to a pattern of sanity and normalcy in the way Congress budgets and appropriates dollars and the ways in which agencies can use those dollars,” Hodgkins said.

Ashok Nare, the chief technology officer of contractor Octo Consulting Group, said the benefits of agency investment in Big Data easily justify the costs. However, educating agency management and workforce is vital, so that they have the insight to understand what Big Data can do and what claims are merely hype.

“Agencies will be able to analyze huge amounts of data in real time, which helps the organizations make faster and more informed decisions that have significant impact on citizens, how we respond to natural disasters and how we protect our war fighters,” Nare said.

This article can also be found on the Federal Times website.