Suppose that the Brazilian National Transit’s Department (Denatran) needs to take action to reduce the risk of death or serious injuries from traffic accidents. The most traditional way to do that would be to impose more restrictive rules and stronger sanctions against traffic infractions, but this would affect all drivers indiscriminately.
Another less unpopular measure to achieve the same outcome would be investigating the conditions in which accidents happen to find the causes more precisely and to promote actions to reduce the risk of occurrence of disasters and minimise their impact.
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In the case of the second alternative, Denatran would need information on traffic incidents, held by the state military authorities; on the damages suffered by the victims, which are in the databases of the health units; and on the tests carried out with the vehicles involved, which may be on the Brazilian metrology institute (Inmetro) databases.
The technology for combining all that data and reaching conclusions about the potential causes is already in place. However, Denatran could face constraints in using this technology because the agencies that oversee those databases could have restrictions against their sharing, due to concerns regarding personal information privacy or industrial secrecy.
When different databases are combined, new information emerges
This hypothetical case illustrates the opportunities and challenges of the sheer volume of data that is available today for governments implementing or improving evidence-based policies.
In an article in May 2017, The Economist magazine called data “the oil of the digital age,” illustrating just how important it has become to the economy. The UN has also claimed that sheer volume of accessible information will lead to the promotion of faster and more effective responses to citizens’ demands.
To keep people’s support in an era of much easier access to information, democratic governments around the world have increasingly adopted an evidence-based policymaking process, moving away from superficial analysis and arbitrary decisions, taken due to the influence of interest groups.
But the dynamics of today’s world demand that this more elaborate evidence-based decision-making process also be faster, which results in the need for immediate availability of information stored in the multitude of government databases.
When data can be crossed, entirely new information emerges, empowering more innovative and effective solutions
Currently, there is an immense variety of government datasets. Databases range from administrative data (e.g. human resources, public procurement, asset inventories) to various data on citizenship (e.g. health, pensions, work), economy (e.g. production, trade, business) and the environment (e.g. climate, geography, mineral resources).
When these datasets are analysed in isolation, the findings are limited to a given field of knowledge, but when data can be crossed, entirely new information emerges, empowering more innovative and effective solutions. This is a new paradigm called data fusion.
Risk-aversion constrains data fusion
Governments from developed and developing countries around the world have been investing heavily in data fusion, and the Brazilian federal government is following this trend with a project called Gov.Data.
But in Brazil and other countries, technology alone has not been enough to promote data fusion because of the reluctance of data managers to share the databases for which they are responsible.
This conservative behaviour of data managers is understandable given previous experiences with problems related to data security, privacy and quality. Since data analysis has become increasingly prevalent, occurrences of data theft have also become prevalent, and managers have implemented various security procedures to protect the databases under their management.
Discussions about information privacy have also surfaced as consumers and citizens have become more aware of the use that is made of their personal data, and organisations have implemented rules to preserve the right to secrecy. Concerns have also risen about the risk of misleading conclusions as consequence of the use of poor-quality data or misinterpretation of the data collected.
In Brazil and the rest of the world, the public manager is naturally risk-averse
Solutions to these risks were implemented in a context prior to the emergence of the data fusion paradigm. Now, the innovation of combined data in the same technological environment brings new risks that must be addressed by managers. However, in Brazil and the rest of the world, the public manager is naturally risk-averse, and this has been a hindrance to the evolution of data fusion projects.
Governments must resolve trade-offs
The solution that has been adopted to address this problem worldwide is the implementation of a system of governance that defines rules and responsibilities in the processes of sharing data among public agencies. This governance system should be aligned with a national data policy, which establishes guidelines for promoting the use of data in the implementation and enhancement of development policies.
To contribute to this process, the OECD has produced a guide with recommendations on privacy rules and use of information in government databases. This is based on the premise that gains in data fusion are potentially much greater than potential damages, and governments should pursue strategies to promote coordination among agencies to implement this new paradigm of evidence-based public management.
The UN also recommends that governments strive to resolve trade-offs related to data sharing to harness the potential of the data revolution to promote social and economic development.
Political sponsorship is needed to push the necessary cooperation for a digital revolution in government
In Brazil, an important step in this direction was taken when the Personal Data Protection Law, launched in August 2018, enabled public agencies to share their data to promote analysis related to public policies. Now, it is necessary to regulate this section of the law, to give greater security to the public managers of databases in the sharing of the information that are in their guard.
Brazil is well on the path to implementing both the technology and necessary legal infrastructure to promote sharing and allow data fusion. However, political support is needed to promote the cooperation needed to enable the full digital revolution in government, without which we risk further increasing our gap with those that already ahead of South America’s largest country. — Jean Paulo Castro e Silva
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