Data privacy and security among key concerns at Cities and Big Data Summit

Privacy, security and data silos were the three biggest issues raised at the recent Cities and Big Data Summit, which brought together more than 130 city administrators from 15 Asian countries. Stefan Sjöström, Vice President of Asia Public Sector, Microsoft, led a discussion around data analytics and shares his key takeaways.

Stefan Sjostrom, Vice President of Public Sector Asia, Microsoft
Stefan Sjostrom, Vice President of Public Sector Asia, Microsoft

Using Big Data, a law enforcement agency in Thailand managed to cut investigation time from two years to 15 days, significantly improving the efficiency of investigating officers. This is one of many success stories of how cities around the world are unlocking the power of data to transform public administration and improve citizen services.

Examples like this have generated a lot of interest about Big Data among Asian city leaders who now recognise the opportunities Big Data provides. The difficulty they then face is the balance between the use of big (and often open) data and the concerns around security and privacy.

“Governments hold a tremendous amount of data, including transport, property, health, education and more. To support transparency and Big Data analytics, they are opening up more of these data sets to the public. While authorities may be cautious to remove any information that can link data to individual citizens, when you start aggregating huge volumes of data from multiple sources, you can start to get very rich data, enough to attribute some data to individuals,” Sjöström explains.

Public sector officials need to consistently check if they are fulfilling their obligations to the community in terms of privacy protection. Most countries have an agency responsible for data privacy. “Each country’s historical background colours their view and policy on privacy. In Sweden, for example, individual’s income and tax data is in the public domain. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, on the other hand, under no circumstances will anyone get close to such data,” he says.

There are also non-profit organisations, such as, that work on a broader scale across governments. Their work has grown in importance with the increasing quantity of data being transmitted across national borders every day. They shed light on global best practices and standards on walking the fine line between open data and citizen privacy.

Another major concern around Big Data is security, says Sjöström. Governments store a vast amount of data about its citizens, such as tax data, date of birth, health records and more: “If any data falls in the wrong hands, consequences can range from unsolicited sales calls to identity theft.”

“Security risks heighten in cyberspace because you are not just guarding against local criminals. Identity thieves can come from the other side of the world and they will use every measure to get into your bank account. More than US$100 billion is stolen on the Internet every year and that number is increasing,” he adds.

How then can governments enjoy the benefits of Big Data – better quality decisions, efficiency and improved citizen services – while respecting privacy and security? Sjöström recommends taking a whole-of-government approach with someone adopting the role of a ‘data alchemist’.

“When individual departments define their own open data policy, and publish data without a coherent strategy, it exposes the government to potential lawsuits around security or privacy breach. Gartner predicts that by 2015, 25 percent of large global organisations will have appointed Chief Data Officers (CDOs). Several governments have taken the step. While they do not own the data, these CDOs coordinate the use of data across the organisation, identify how value can be derived through analytics, what policies should govern open data and how best to make data sets available,” he notes.

The creation of a ‘data conductor’ to orchestrate a uniform approach to open and Big Data is a promising move for government because it addresses the long-standing challenge of departments working in silos. Recognising this issue, some have started standardising systems to facilitate cross-department communication.

According to Sjöström, the City of Barcelona, with approximately 14,000 employees, saved the city 30 percent of the cost of an on-premises solution just by standardising their mail system. “The City Government was running four different email systems which was not only costly, but made communication across departments very ineffective,” he shares.

“Privacy and security practices must continue to evolve in today’s data-driven world, especially if governments, citizens and businesses want to benefit from the value of Big Data. To this end, we should see more collaboration within and across governments as well as with the private sector, to develop a framework that works,” concludes Sjöström.

Report: Kelly Ng

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