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Have Your Data Talk To My Data


About thirty years ago on a short winter Sunday the sun went down and my room got dark. I flicked the light switch but no light went on.

“Ma,” I called out. “What’s with the lights?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “Talk to your father.”

My father wasn’t home but when he did arrive the lights were still out.

“Daddy, what’s with the lights?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I paid the power company.” (You are thinking at this point that I grew up in a hardscrabble part of town in a shack perhaps, that we were poor, and that my dad was trying to salvage his dignity. No.)

What a mystery, I thought to myself. Hmm.

My kids cannot figure out my parents’ relationship at all. Each one is absolutely independent and yet they are also a team.

If my parents were a government agency, we would say that they lacked a “dashboard” and “metadata.”

I can imagine the meeting of the senior leadership team of Passaic, New Jersey. “Commissioner Stroli,” someone might ask. “There is a new tool that can house all your power utility related information, including the current status of your bill payments.”

“That would be out-standing,” my father would say. “Because I know I definitely put that check in the mail. Those darn power companies!”

Deputy Commissioner Stroli might chime in at this point. “Commissioner, with all due respect. You have tried these dashboards over and over again with no success. Continuous investment in failed tracking tools is a problem for us.” Then she would go take dinner out of the microwave.

“Well then what do you propose?” my father would say, gesturing toward the leadership team assembled. “Certainly we all want to improve the quality of our power in the Stroli home. Efficiency and effectiveness, that’s our motto!”

“Stop the proceedings!” This is where the Senior Advisor for Communication (guess who?) might chime in. “We must sit down and work out the issues.” A look of frustration crosses her face and she wearily takes a slug from her coffee mug.

“Issues? We don’t have issues,” the Commissioner might say. “That’s not even a data-driven word. Focus on the evidence and not your personal opinions.

There in a nutshell is government and Big Data.

We use a lot of new and fancy words to avoid dealing with the age-old problems of any social institution:

* We do not want to talk to each other.
* We cannot fix unfixable problems.
* We do not like to share power.
* It is easier to kick the can down the road.

A man wrote this letter to his first and favorite boss and posted it on the Internet.

The job was doing manual labor caring for plants and things like that.

When it was time to collect salary the boss wrote the young man a note: “Go to the shoebox on the counter and take what we owe you.”

That right there is the essence of it. When the owner tells me where the cash box is, it strips away his power. I could steal it. He can’t be the Wizard of Oz anymore.

When on the job all my documents become a case, and the cases are entered into the system, and the system has shared tags so that everyone doing the same kind of work can find it – that’s big data.

When people can access my case without asking me – that’s my loss of control right there.

We can call big meetings, pay big money, and wait for big evidence. But time is up and the money has run out.

Want to know why taxpayers are mad? Correction – not just mad, furious. They are sick of us treating their money as ours. They want us to act like responsible grownups. Not irresponsible stewards of the cash box, holding them hostage to power struggles, and then making piles of excuses for it. Sinking yet more money into the pit that we created.

For the sake of our broken and bankrupt country, let’s get our data together already.

Transparency doesn’t start in a complicated, expensive, impossible-to-understand system. It lives in a simple shoebox. If we can’t trust each other to take just what we’ve earned for watering the plants, then we ought not be working together on the farm.

* All opinions my own.

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