Our government is the OPEC of data

Last week, I had the honor to present my ideas on the use of data to a select group of government managers, during an event hosted by SAS, a leading provider of solutions for data and analytics. Basically, the message is: we can look at data today the way we looked at oil in the 19th century: a huge source of potential possibilities that has always been there, but that we have only recently learned to fully exploit.

Guest blog by Peter De Keyzer, Managing Partner & Chief Economist at Growth_Inc.

We should not forget that economic growth is a very recent phenomenon, if we look at it from a historic perspective. Economic growth is fueled by two main factors: the growth of the population and the arrival of technology and other inventions that has increased our productivity. The last two centuries, the growth of population has been spectacular, mostly due to a severely higher life expectancy. And we have witnessed the arrival of technology and innovations that managed to exploit the available resources far better than ever before. 

Right now, economic growth is becoming less obvious, if only because - especially in the Old World - the population has stopped growing, and sometimes even starts decreasing. In order to keep the economy growing as it has done for many decades, we need technology that exploits the available resources better than ever before. Fortunately, we have discovered the potential of data as ‘the new oil’, a new source to fuel future innovation. This new oil has two main advantages: one, we are only starting to discover the ways to exploit it; and two, the amount of data just keeps growing and growing.

Continuing the comparison between data and oil, we must conclude - and rightly so - that our government is very rich, because they are hoarding enormous piles of data. You could even call the government the ‘OPEC of data’. Ironically, they are rather providing these data to the general public, in the valued form of open data, than putting these data to good use themselves. 

This is a pity because there are many areas in which the available data can benefit society. Think of the traffic jams: Google is able to provide us with some valuable information, why can’t the government do more with the data available to them? If sensors within cars can provide car vendors with valuable information, why can’t these dat be shared with government? This should be no problem: car dealers cannot be opposed to a higher mobility for their customers, can they? And everybody knows we could use a higher mobility: Brussels and Antwerp are in the top 3 of cities with the most congested traffic worldwide.

Data can not only prove useful to improve mobility. In terms of employment, the right use of data can provide valuable information on which initiatives do improve the employment rate and which don’t. And police forces can be much more efficient and proactive when using the available data than by walking around in the streets.  

Of course, there are some obstacles on the road to an efficient and game-changing use of data, privacy being the most obvious. And we shouldn’t neglect the impact of our government’s complexity and people’s resistance to technology, and to any form of change. Recently, for instance, it turned out that many Belgians are still refusing to use online banking.  So the optimal use of the available data may still take a while.

But if the government wants to continue to cope with our high level of debt without raising the high taxes even further, and if they want to meet the ever-increasing public expectations, they will need to become much more efficient. Using the available data would be a good start. The good news is: they don’t even have to own the data they want to use. Look at Uber’s motto: they want to change the way the world moves without owning a single car. Why wouldn’t the government be able to improve our country on the basis of publicly available data?