Chris Smith, US Federal Chief Technology Officer and Innovation Officer of Accenture, talked with WashingtonExec about everything big data: misconceptions, predictions, and its impact in Federal IT.
We also asked Smith about his first job and his transition from a long career in the public sector to the private sector.
WashingtonExec: What convinced you and Accenture to invest in big data and make it a part of your company’s overall strategy?
Chris Smith: If you think back a few years, the hot topic was service-oriented architecture (SOA) and right now it is cloud and Big Data. The reality is that there has been an evolution whereby we have made great strides implementing SOA and that has enabled adoption of cloud computing technologies and now we are generating large volumes of a variety of data that is both structured and unstructured. Accenture has a long tradition and strong practices in helping our clients find insight and derive derive value from their data. By developing a comprehensive and robust analytics capacity within an organization that organization will be best positioned for high performance and success. We have been helping clients across the globe to develop strong analytics capabilities and leveraging big data is the next step in building the next generation practices. We get it. We have been investing in big data assets and tools for the past few years and are continuing to refine the capability for the client’s benefit, to create program victories for them in their organizations.
WashingtonExec: Big data is slowly becoming a term (like mobility) where people say it a lot, but at times we don’t get into what exactly it means. What does big data mean to you?
Chris Smith: Truly it is about the information, it is a hot topic that gets a lot of play and that’s because there is great opportunity within it. It’s about finding value within the information that an organization is already collecting to make better decisions, to improve the bottom line or improve services to the citizen. A good example is taking the myriad of information we are collecting locally in law enforcement agencies, from intelligence and counter intelligence networks around the globe. In many cases that information is spread across a multiple set of players, everything from a local police blotter to sensors that are collecting information within certain organizations. How do you take that heterogeneous or very disparate, varied data and find that nugget of information that may help you prevent a disaster. It’s really finding value in large amounts of data that may not have been identifiable by looking at just one set. Commercially, you see this in combining customer relationship management plus perhaps some other sales information and social media (what are people saying about your organization) to improve product sales - again very disparate sets of information that when viewed alone do not provide a necessary competitive advantage. It is insight into raw data that allows us to make more informed decisions to help our clients better deliver their missions.
WashingtonExec: Accenture has been investing in big data for a while now. Why do you think that big data has become more of a mainstream term and now government is demanding it more than it had in the past?
Chris Smith: I think it is that bow wave of information that’s coming at us. The volume, variety and velocity (speed) at which data is being generated (and that can be stored cheaply) is staggering. For example, if there were an outbreak of a given flu, traditional ways of identifying where the flu may be going are usually lagging indicators. It is based on the collection of information from healthcare providers – how many people showed up with these ailments… big data allows us to look at multiple different sources from social media feeds, to perhaps transactions from point of sales for pharmacies to search engines on the internet and the traditional organizations that are involved in healthcare. By pulling all of these disparate data sets together we can paint a picture of people talking about and researching symptoms, purchasing cold medicine, visiting physicians and come up with a high correlation that in fact those unstructured data pieces have led us to predict where the flu is occurring and that we will see this outbreak or flu symptoms moving across the country in in a certain pattern.
“That’s an important point to note – right now a lot of the data has not been structured in a way that allows federal agencies to report in an easy, cost effective way.”
WashingtonExec: I read that the Library of Congress has started archiving tweets.
Chris Smith: Take that a step further. If you take tweets and geospatially enable those and geo code themn a given area, all of a sudden you are seeing all of this social media action around comments like ‘I’ve got these really bad symptoms, has anybody seen this’ or ‘I went to my doctor and they suggested this.’ You have another set data or maybe early indicators of something happening. Let’s change this over and give another example – an outbreak of salmonella for instance. It’s very likely that those types of indicators will show up more quickly in social media via Yelp . . . ‘I went to this place and I had a really bad meal’. You would normally just think it is somebody that is not happy with a meal. But you tie that together with people searching for certain symptoms in a completely disparate set, then you start to bring in some geo coding or geospatial view of that. All of a sudden, you have a very powerful set of indicators. That will allow us to figure out where that happened, contain it and move on and likely reduce the number food borne illnesses and even deaths and the magnitude and direction of something like that. It is extraordinary. IDC is saying that the amount of data that we are creating is doubling every two years. We are getting into Exabytes of data that are doubling and an Exabyte is 250 million DVD’s worth of information.
A lot of these techniques can be applied back inward to legacy systems right now. Within large organizations there is a great deal of fragmentation across their business lines or program lines and so these techniques can be applied within existing information sets right now to glean insights and get better value from that information, better service to the citizens and make better decisions and ultimately deliver their mission more efficiently and make better use of taxpayer dollars. That’s an important point to note – right now a lot of the data has not been structured in a way that allows federal agencies to report in an easy, cost effective way. There is a lot to be gleaned in terms of visibility, transparency and cost efficiency as we do this.
WashingtonExec: What is the biggest misconception about big data that you have found in the marketplace?
Chris Smith: I think it’s that all analytics are being confused now with big data. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but Big data specifically is using certain techniques on unstructured data to bring a structured meaning to it so that you can glean value from it to better do your mission or to better deliver your business. What’s important that people keep in mind is that big data is only one piece of a well thought out analytics capability. That means that strategically you want to understand these techniques and capabilities and there are big benefits to be realized. There is still a great deal opportunity within federal organizations to have a robust set of analytical capabilities across their existing datasets. Big data is one part of the puzzle for them. Some good questions to ask are: How does this fit in my overarching analytics strategy? How do you get the quick wins? How do you do it efficiently and effectively implement these techniques.
WashingtonExec: Do you have a specific sector that you see big data making the largest impact in the next couple of years?
Chris Smith: I mentioned the Defense and Intelligence series, as well as Health, but I’ll go even broader and go right into our civilian sector and talk about the budget constraints that we are all facing within the nation. Big data can help identify fraud, waste and abuse or payment anomalies as well help with identifying cost savings opportunities in general. By taking disparate business data sets and looking at spend analysis we can say ‘hey, you are not getting the biggest bang for your buck there’ or leveraging the government’s buying power to the greatest degree. Big data capabilities can also be used to reduce improper payments in cases where there are fraudulent activities going on we can identify those up front before they happen and save significant tax dollars. In contracting and acquisition we can identify fraud and improve the supply chain. There are problems on the globe right now with counterfeit products in information technology and software supply chains that are a national security concern. It’s extraordinarily important that we find these early and we have the capability to stem a great deal of this activity using big data and predictive analytics, which we can.
WashingtonExec: You worked in federal government for a long time. What did you learn in the private sector that helped you as a government official, or what did you learn in the public sector that has helped you at Accenture?
Chris Smith: People tend to view the public and private sectors as vastly different, while there are obviously some key differences, by and large, the problems we face are much the same. Well-run organizations seek to be high performing and continuously improving operations that achieve highly effective and and efficient service delivery that meet or exceed some customer expectations. The most successful groups have a clear vision and a strategy to execute that vision. They leverage information technology to gain a competitive advantage and they harness that technology to derive the greatest value from their information.
WashingtonExec: What is something most people might not know about you?
Chris Smith: The year the Berlin Wall came down I was there on New Year’s Eve and actually proposed to my wife. We were there when the Wall started coming down in November of that year and then New Year’s was the capping of that. There was just this great influx of people back and forth; east to west and it was just a really joyous celebration and neat to be a part of that history.
WashingtonExec: What was your first job?
Chris Smith: The first job I think I was a paperboy for the Washington Star which was an afternoon paper in the DC area and is no longer around. I still have my newspaper delivery bag. My dad kept that for me for many years and gave that to me when I came back home from overseas. I still carry that to this day.