Big data could help Ontario make more evidence-based public policy
The use of big data in public policy is quickly catching on in urban regions. Big data is assisting public policies in those regions to become more responsive and cost effective.
Melbourne, for example, is piloting a public transit program based on evidence using big data. It has more residents living in urban areas than its suburbs for the first time in its history, creating significant challenges as its public transit system will become obsolete in the face of shifting commuter trends. Gathering holistic data on ever-changing demographics is costly and time-consuming, and traditional statistical analytics are proving to be inadequate in responding to such changes fast enough. In turn, Melbourne, innovatively, has responded to this with a big data solution by collecting information using sensors and mobile technology. As a result, Yarra Trams, the largest tram system in the world, has consistently achieved its service and punctuality goals.
The accuracy and speed of big data identifying and tracking a certain pattern is impressive. According to Harvard University Professor Gary King, “The revolution lies in improved statistical and computational methods, not in the exponential growth of storage or even computational capacity. A set of rules (a big algorithm) that can be used to solve a problem is a thousand times faster than conventional computational methods could”. For instance, Target used an algorithm to detect when women were pregnant by tracking purchases of items such as unscented lotions, and offered special discounts and coupons to those valuable patrons. Big data became invaluable assets to today’s business. In the public sector, there are all kinds of opportunities for big data applications: Researchers at Rutger’s School of Criminal Justice have developed a technique to better allocate police resources by forecasting the crime occurrence patterns. Wikipedia has been proved to track flu outbreaks faster than traditional methods used by the Centers for Disease Control. And City of Boston has worked with MIT to improve transportation by crunching 2.3 million Boston taxi rides data. It is self-explanatory that big data will make public policy smarter and cost-effective, and help our government to be more responsive and efficient.
With Ontario’s strong information technology cluster, the Institute sees an opportunity for the province to step up and lead big data-based public policy making. By collecting more multidimensional data and creating sophisticated algorithms, Ontario could develop smarter fiscal policies by monitoring not only traditional economic indicators but also other relevant behavioural information such as credit card transactions. Ontario could improve commutes by not only increasing infrastructure spending, but by providing mobile push notifications based on individuals’ travel patterns and real-time traffic data. Ontario cities can engage in more responsive city planning not only through public hearings and focus groups, but also through social media data. Not only could big data improve Ontario’s public services, but also it would save unnecessary economic loss due to weather conditions, such as summer flood and winter ice storm. For instances, Public Works could track down the possibility of flood and minimized its impact by monitoring big data such as traffic, reports of broken sewage system or even grocery data.
Despite the countless benefits big data will bring, there are certainly privacy issues to overcome. To fully capture the benefits of big data, there is a need to regulate its use to protect privacy. Nevertheless, the benefits of big data far outweigh the costs. Policy makers must work toward creating a big data initiative to help implement smarter, more effective policies in Ontario.
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