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Big data: big future, big job field

Jan. 10, 2013 - 01:57PM   |  

Agencies are struggling to keep pace with the growing staffing demands of managing large volumes of complex and variable data, known as big data.

While the growth of federal data isn’t a new phenomenon, the variety of data from videos, emails and social media is forcing agencies to evaluate the skills needed to manage and make sense of the data, said Jeff Butler, a director at the Internal Revenue Service’s Research, Analysis and Statistics organization. Within Butler’s IRS division, the workforce skills developed over the last 25 years aren’t necessarily the skills it will need over the next decade, Butler said at a conference last month.

Today, IRS is using big data tools and techniques to crack down on tax fraud. NASA, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also are using big data tools and techniques.

The Office of Management and Budget meanwhile is pressing agencies to invest more in emerging areas, such as big data, and to be more aggressive in releasing that data to the public in nonproprietary formats.

Agencies have already released thousands of data sets, including information on: all federally declared disasters, which date to 1953; tomato acreage, production and price; and state and local services for the elderly, complete with a searchable database.

As the size and value of federal data sets increase, the ability to explain to leaders what the data means and what problems it can solve will be critical, Butler said.

However, over the next few years, the skills gap will grow exponentially, said Michael Chui with the McKinsey Global Institute. Chui is co-author of a 2011 report that projected the nation, including the federal government, will need as many as 190,000 more big data experts and 1.5 million more data-savvy managers to take full advantage of big data in the U.S. by 2018.

When you’ve got such competition for talent, agencies have to figure out how to make their programs sexy and sell them, Micheline Casey, former chief data officer for Colorado, said at an event last month. “And no student comes out thinking, ‘I want to work for the federal government ’cause that’s a really hot place to work.’ ”

But some agencies are doing amazing big data work, including NASA and the Energy Department, Casey said.

They’re also competing with Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Bank of America and other private-sector organizations for this talent.

Casey said agencies must ensure that their contractor staff is sharing knowledge on big data tools and techniques with their federal staff so institutional knowledge isn’t lost when a contract ends.

If agencies have the best data scientists, but senior leaders don’t know what to do with the data and insights that come from analyzing the data, it doesn’t benefit the agency, Casey said.

Michael Rappa, director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University, suggested that agencies also partner with universities.

Federal contractors Agilex, Accenture and Deloitte Consulting are among companies that have made offers to the institute’s graduates. Graduates have been offered positions as fraud analysts, credit risk analysts and strategy consultants. Last year, the average base salary offer for institute graduates was more than $89,000.

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