Big Data Steering Group creates model for government collaboration

Intergovernmental collaboration has been a top talking point for agency leaders in the last year. Groups such as the President’s Innovation Cohort and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology seek to encourage that sense of collaboration: the Big Data Steering Group is no different. It’s an entity of 18 different agencies that come together with ideas of what they want to do the following year.

Suzanne Iacono, co-chair of the Big Data Steering Group and deputy assistant director of computer and information science and engineering at the National Science Foundation, has helped to organize the Data to Knowledge to Action event for the past 14 months. The idea for the event was born when the group realized the need for partnerships at its annual meeting in September.

Iacono said the hope is these partnerships will be an example to future organizations looking to cultivate partnerships.

“When you’re trying to encourage all kinds of organizations across the land to make a commitment to do something to better their part of the world, you have to show them examples of the kinds of things that can be done,” she said. “It hits people’s imaginations, it allows for creativity to flow — people start talking to each other and conversations happen.”


In September 2012, there were zero partnerships. Now, 14 months later, 28 partnerships exist with 90 participants. Iacono and her colleagues hope events such as Data to Knowledge to Action, co-hosted by the White House and NITRD, will serve as a model for future partnerships. It hasn’t been easy, she admits.

“It’s hard to build a new culture,” Iacono said. “To build new ways of thinking where data can be integrated into daily life or into decision making at the highest levels really takes a culture change.”

These partnerships can be far reaching, she explained. Efforts such as Data to Knowledge to Action can help make a “quantum leap” from where the country is today to where it can be.

“If we could address some of these national priorities, it’d be great for the whole country,” Iacono said. “And if we could have advances in scientific discovery, then we’re more competitive and the country is in a better place.”

The overarching characteristics of partnerships and entities such as the Big Data Steering Group speak to certain trends in government: doing more with less, collaboration and shared services.


“The government needs to learn to do more with what it has,” Iacono said. “What we’re uncovering is that it’s kind of an opportunity when you don’t get more money, because then you’re left with optimizing the resources you already have.”

The Big Data Steering Group’s role in all of this is bringing to the table key players from each agency who care about data.

“We think about, how do we share data? And what are the big research questions scientists at each agency are asking that can’t be answered,” Iacono said. “Working together, we begin to realize how we can work across boundaries and that’s not an easy thing to do in the federal government. Each agency has their own missions and their own timelines and culture.”

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