The government should take a page out of the private sector's book and use big data and analytics to tailor services to citizens, Paul Maltby, director of open data and government innovation at the Cabinet Office has told Computing.
"What I see out there is a tech community using data in a different way, finding patterns in it, thinking about how do you segment different populations, using predicative analytics and machine learning to do these really rather transformational things," he said.
"We're all aware of that behind the scenes when we go to Google, Amazon or Tesco."
Maltby was speaking to Computing after taking part in an EMC and Policy Exchange event on how technology can reinvent government. He indicated that gathering and analysing unstructured data could lead to new methods of government and better services.
"To date, in non-secret parts of government, that hasn't been a familiar way of working. Government has huge numbers of really skilled analysts in organisations like HMRC doing tax or DWP doing benefits. They are data-led organisations," he said.
"So the analytical community is strong but I see a different approach going on in the world out there with different mindsets, different tools, and there's a space where those opportunities can be brought into the way the government does its analytical business and inform decisions in a different way."
However, Maltby warned that in order to properly take advantage of big data in an ethical way, the government needs to ensure transparency at every stage.
"Whilst the opportunity is there, there's also a need to be very careful and I think as we go down that journey, being transparent about it, being clear what we shouldn't do as well as what we could do is going to be an important part of that," he told Computing.
Nonetheless, Maltby is confident unstructured data can be used appropriately, citing how some areas of government are already examining the likes of Twitter and Facebook in order to directly gauge the views of the general public on certain matters rather than having to rely on thinktanks.
"Already good policy makers in government are using social media to understand what different groups think about policy areas in real time," he explained.
"Instead of having to go to the formal industry lobbies or campaign groups, we can have a different way of hearing what people are saying and sometimes interact with people, changing the way we do business."
Maltby cited how this method has already been applied in some areas, changing how some government departments are approaching the way they gather data from social media.
"Think of the way in which the Ministry of Justice wanted to launch a new victim's code and find the right way of doing that with young people. Actually the process of interaction with them through social media not only changed how they presented that but also how they thought about it," he said.
Maltby insisted the government is taking precautions to ensure proper treatment of the social data it handles.
"For instance, whilst listening to what people are saying in publicly available social media, you may not take out one person's individual Tweet about what they said on Friday night after they'd been to the pub, then publish it in a document," he said, adding that there are still questions that need to be asked about where the data is stored and how long it's used for.
So long as Whitehall takes the relevant precautions to protect information, Maltby sees a bright future for big data within government.
"I think there's an opportunity there but it's one we have to do carefully and not be flippant or rash. As we've seen in the commercial world, there are opportunities to use data to see what people want then tailor things around people. It's an opportunity if we do it properly," he said.
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