The TechAmerica Foundation — the nonprofit affiliate of industry group TechAmerica — last month outlined the leadership of its new Big Data Commission, a group of executives and academics convened to consider how the public sector can take advantage of a growing amount of data.

Among the questions to be considered is how can agencies secure their information, the capabilities agencies need and the way big data can be used to improve government services.

Capital Business interviewed some of the commission’s members. What follows are edited excerpts from those conversations:

Steven A. Mills, Co-Chairman

IBM, senior vice president and group executive, software and systems

“The cost of being able to collect and analyze has come down so the potential to really work on really big quantities of data has increased, the economics have improved. What [the commission is] trying to drive through here is something that provides, if you will, a little bit of a cookbook, some structure, some consistency, something that government agencies could pick up and use as the general set of guidelines to create a repeatable approach around this whole idea of [big data]. There’s tremendous value in being able to look at data in a horizontal way. You think about each government agency and its own data collection missions. What about the ability to share data across government entities?”

Steve Lucas, Co-Chairman

SAP Database & Technology, global executive vice president and general manager

“To be honest, I’ve never seen anything quite like this kind of convergence of data which is seemingly coming together all at once. You’ve got the data companies have always generated. [Also] there are more cell phones on the planet than there are toothbrushes. All of those cell phones generate data [and] all of that data gets stored somewhere. [The surge of data means] it’s almost becoming impossible to listen to the really important signals. We have got to lead on this front, we have to be a data-driven economy.”

Teresa Carlson,
Vice Chairwoman

Amazon Web Services, vice president, global public sector

“One, we need to help government define what big data is. Number two, help them identify the blockers that’s keeping them from doing more [with] big data today — processing, analytics and the use of it —and then the third is really the ABCs of how they now approach it. What are the tool sets that they use for big data analytics and processing and, once that’s done, how do they use it [to] give both citizens and agencies more access to information that is there, that’s very rich, that they haven’t been able to get to and process today?”

Bill Perlowitz, Vice Chairman

Wyle, chief technology officer, science, technology and engineering group

“Data is the new currency. Before, applications and hardware and software gave us competitive advantage; now it’s about data. Nobody gathers more data than the government, so it’s possible that no one could gain more from efficiencies in big data than the government. We keep looking to information technology to continually save money. As the budget continues to shrink, time and time again we go back to IT for these efficiencies. I think we’ve squeezed about as much as we can out of infrastructure with cloud computing, so the next place to start looking is, how can we more efficiently process data and provide services to the citizenry?”

Richard W. Johnson

Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions, chief technology officer and vice president

Government agencies “need a strategy for how to deal with extracting meaningful information to provide citizen services and to deliver on missions. They all have similar challenges: How do they approach it? What are sound strategies? What help do they need from industry in the way of analytics and technical expertise? As an integrator, we [take] the approach that one size doesn’t fit all, you’ve got to tailor an approach to the mission. Certainly there is a common core that cuts across all agencies, but there’s also unique differences that you’ve got to respect.”

Mike Olson

Cloudera, chief executive

“The flood of data is unprecedented, so it’s only now that some in industry and some in government are wrapping their heads around what does it mean. Smart grid is reporting what’s going on with energy consumption. What kind of energy policy could we better define if we had a fine-grained picture of what’s going on there? There’s a companion issue to that: What does privacy mean? How do we protect individual privacy in an environment where machines are talking to each other more than ever before? We can’t simply say turn off the machines — it’s too late for that — but I do think we can formulate intelligent policy. There will be important social, ethical and policy issues, and we might as well think about them up front.”