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11 Ago 2015

Math for Governments

Pablo Valenti

Lee esta nota en español aquí.


Mathematics are becoming a powerful tool to support government management. I am not referring only to economics or statistics, I mean everything that can be done with the huge amount of data generated that is commonly known as Big Data [1]. Processing that amount of information requires experts on mathematical algorithms. Behind proposals such as those offered by Netflix, Google, Facebook, or in areas like national security or economic transactions (High Frequency Trading — almost three quarters of the transactions on the stock market of the world are no longer determined by any human), there are mathematical equations.

Big Data is revolutionizing the ways in which we generate and consume information. There is a new source of value in data for companies and research centers, but also for the public sector and people in general. We generate data on almost everything we use and do. Through our mobile devices, automobiles, industrial equipment, traffic lights, power lines, public spaces, and countless other things we never thought as data generators. It is estimated that within five years there will be over 28,000 million things connected to the Internet and generating data. All this information tells us more and more about our collective behavior and our society.

In matters of public security, Latin America and the Caribbean is already testing solutions based on the data. Some countries use software to predict so-called “hot spots.” In Uruguay, a software called PredPol [2] that feeds data from complaints made to the police, integrates artificial intelligence solutions to build patrol areas based on the forecast of crime. Another example, from civil society, is Jamaica’s Crimebot [3], which collects data sent by users to fight crime in cities like Kingston or Montego Bay.

There are many solutions that massive data can bring to the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean, but who in public offices is able to process, interpret and exploit the potential of the data? A new field of work emerges that is focused on public databases, data analytics, the internet of things, and other information sources to support the generation of solutions that improve citizens’ lives.

Today, the biggest obstacle to access all this data is not technological — it’s missing specialists. No wonder the Harvard Business Review called specialists in big data (or data scientists or chief data officers or chiefs in analytical data) the career of the future. Gartner estimates that 4.4 million data scientists will be required worldwide in 2015 [4]. The truth is that large companies like IBM, Kraft, General Electric, Banco Santander and BBVA are incorporating these professionals. But there are still few companies that have highly skilled professionals in this field, and the situation is even worse in the public sector. It is becoming increasingly essential to have civil servants with mathematical training.

Some sectors of the economy have been working and experimenting with large amounts of data in their strategies for growth and innovation for years. We should give them special attention; the tourism sector is a great example. This field has adapted to the use of data, setting up tourism offers according to the digital fingerprints left behind by travelers. They know and define their products according to how people navigate on the web, and they figure out preferences by correlating data about age, nationality, profession, marital status, frequency, tastes, and others. In the food sector, companies like Kraft [5], redefined their marketing strategies and the development of new products by listening to their consumers through Big Data tools.

New businesses are taking the lead based on the power obtained by processing huge amounts of data and achieving a clear competitive advantage.

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Within government, there is a feeling that the most interested areas in large volumes of data are related to economics and statistics. However, many other governmental areas needs to understand and use big data: e-government and government outreach is inconceivable without data analysis of social media. The prevention of natural disasters, health strategies, public transport planning, monitoring education programs and many other areas are in need of math equations and specialists dedicated to data. Ninety percent of the data that exists today was generated in the last two years, according to IBM. In this absurd amount of peta, exa and zettabytes we can find many of the answers that societies are looking for.

It is very likely that in the coming years we’ll see more public calls for hiring new staff members who are specialized in data. These workers should not necessarily be mathematical or statistical experts, but professionals with a keen interest in information analysis and mathematics, as well as—and here comes the tricky part—with enough creativity to imagine data that generate solutions. It is no coincidence that the business world is increasingly interested in Big Data. Students of the Master in Business Analytics & Big Data [6] at the Instituto de Empresa (IE) in Spain are, on average, 29 years old and have an average of five years of professional experience; 25% of them are mathematicians and statisticians, another 25% have a technological profile, and the remaining 50% is linked to the business world.

Public agencies would do well to start thinking about training and hiring social and public entrepreneurial minds with a calling for big data.

[1] The concept of “Big Data” was popularized linked by a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) document published in June 2011, where it is defined as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze.” One of the most complete and accepted definitions is provided by Gartner: “Big data is high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making.”
[2] http://www.predpol.com/in-the-press/
[3] http://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/open-data-ground-jamaica-s-crimebot and http://yogobierno.org/caribbean-apps-we-look-forward-to-in-2015/
[4] http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2207915
[5] http://adexchanger.com/advertiser/kraft-cmo-first-party-data-fuels-our-content-and-ads-strategy/
[6] http://mbd.ie.edu/

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