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NSA Disclosures, Mass Shootings Expose Big Data Problem

Rob Enderle | Sept. 23, 2013
Sure, the government may know everything about you, but those tidbits of information sit in disconnected, proprietary databases. Unfortunately, that means it's harder than it should be to identify someone who's likely to be behind a mass shooting or terrorist attack.

Some say what the NSA is doing is unconstitutional. The bigger problem, though, is that all this does is add yet another data level to yet another database that can't be cross-checked with other government information sources.

Even with all this massive data capture, this week another American with health problems and a violent history shot and killed 12 U.S. citizens. This was at a secure U.S. Navy facility with armed guards who had no more knowledge of the potential threat the shooter posed than if no data had been captured or analyzed at all.

Instead of being proactive, law enforcement had to address the problem as if the data and system didn't even exist. The Daily Show correctly, and sadly, points to the wealth of information disclosed after the event that, had it been known beforehand, could have prevented it in the first place.

There have been at least 17 mass shootings in 2013. While this is consistent with data on mass shootings in the last 30 years, you'd think all the surveillance cameras, data capture and analytics would be making this number go down. It's not. And before you argue that the federal government shouldn't be able to address an issue like this, consider that the Drug Enforcement Administration regularly provides information to local agencies - though it's in a secretive and, as the mass shooting trend suggests, ineffective fashion.

In short, the U.S. government is collecting massive amounts of information with the goal of keeping folks safe - but that last part just doesn't seem to be happening.

Focus on a Solution First, Then Decide What Data You Need
The critical problem with 9/11 was the inability to connect databases in order to connect the dots and prevent catastrophes. Because this is hard to do, the NSA decided to collect more information, arguably illegally, in order to get its elusive answers. It's not working.

The NSA approach is common. It emphasizes control and data capture but loses focus because the part that needs fixing is incredibly difficult. The better path: Come up with a set of standards, drive every database to them, and analyze the result before collecting more data. Not only would this be less controversial (and less illegal), it would likely be far more effective, less expensive and able to prevent problems such as the Department of Veterans Affairs' documentation nightmare, which forces veterans to fill out dozens, if not hundreds, of paper forms before receiving the benefits they deserve.

The lesson here: Focus on the problem at hand, and don't sidestep it just because it's difficult. If an organization wants a job done, it will resource it. The job is to get it done right. That means focusing on the analytics up front, seeing what you can get from what you have and capturing more data only when you know what data you want. Otherwise the problem just gets bigger.

 

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