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Crystal Agencies: Visualizing How Government Agencies Affect the United States Data Ecosystem

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
June 20, 2019

A vital component of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) concerns data, accountability and transparency. As stated in the PMA, “Data, accountability and transparency initiatives must provide the tools to deliver visibly better results to the public while improving accountability to taxpayers for sound fiscal stewardship and mission results.”

To aid in implementing the PMA, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) launched a challenge to stand up the Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. “Today’s digital economy has transformed how citizens interact with government. By leveraging technology and innovation, the GEAR Center will ensure our government connects to cutting-edge thinking and real-world solutions,” stated OMB’s Deputy Director for Management, Margaret Weichert.

As I read about the challenge, I thought about an idea I had when I was working at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). I was working for the Strategic Workforce Planning group, where I dealt with data analysis of the federal workforce. I had recently read about digital twins, which are virtual replicas that use data to represent the processes and systems of an entity. Having been a longtime player of simulation games, I suggested building a digital twin of the federal civilian workforce using the data collected by OPM. The idea was to test strategies on the federal workforce digital twin before implementing the policies on the actual federal workforce.

Creating digital twins of the United States federal agencies may still be a few years away. However, federal agencies can take two significant steps that will help fulfill the data, accountability and transparency goals of the PMA. The first step is to map the data ecosystem of major economic sectors and the role federal agencies play in the data ecosystems. The second step is having the federal agencies map and visualize the ways data flows in the agency—crystal agencies.

The Big Data Ecosystem of United States Agriculture

In 2016, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report about the big data in the United States agriculture business sector. The report traces how big data was used in decision making by farmers and farming companies. CRS determined how big agricultural data was created and collected by publicly funded sources such as federal agencies. Then, big agricultural data produced by private concerns was analyzed and mapped. Both streams of private and public agricultural big data were combined to represent a complete picture of how big data flows from, to and between the entities involved in United States agriculture.

The CRS report was a great start on mapping how the federal government’s data influences and is influenced by other organizations in the United States agricultural economy. There were no visualizations, but using the sources identified in the report, it would be easy to create displays showing the data flow. The report is also a good template for mapping other major sectors in the United States economy.

Crystal Agencies—Visualizing the Data Flows in Federal Agencies

According to Phil Simon, author of The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions, organizations go through four-levels of data visualizations. The first level is creating static visualizations of the organization’s small data sets. The organization then moves to the second level of creating interactive visualizations of small data sets. The third level is creating static visualizations of big data sets. The final and fourth level is creating interactions for the big data set visualizations.

Phil Simon recommends that organizations begin with small data sets to sharpen their skills with data visualization planning and tools. I’ve seen examples of this when several federal agencies used Tableau (a proprietary data visualization tool) to work with their small data sets from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). The FEVS is a survey of federal employees to gauge their perceptions on their leadership, engagement in their work and their work climate. The ability to program interactivity into the FEVS data produced insights into the data that would not have been apparent in the static visualizations.

The FEVS is a relatively small data set compared to the big data sets that federal agencies possess. However, the tools for collecting, analyzing and visualizing big data have advanced significantly in the last decade. Most of the modern tools require little training to produce sophisticated visualizations. As the federal agencies move to the cloud, it becomes easier to connect different data sets to build more comprehensive big data sets with novel visualizations. The more data sets are connected and visualized, the more transparent the agency’s data assets and flows become.

Understanding the Role of Government Data in the U.S. Economy

Creating crystal agencies will fulfill the data, accountability and transparency goals of the PMA. The long-range benefit of crystal agencies will be in mapping how data flows through the United States economy. Visualizing how government big data helps spur economic activity and innovation will lead to better and more effective policymaking.

Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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