From the moment the first explosion went off on Boylston Street during last year’s Boston Marathon, one question has guided most analysis of the incident: Was there more information that we could have gathered that would have led us to the Tsarnaev brothers sooner? This question is important, especially in light of continuing disclosures about failed intelligence sharing. It’s based on the rather simple notion that if only we had more information, and had it sooner, then the attacks could have been stopped.
As two people who have spent careers in public safety and homeland security on the federal, state, and local levels, we know of the urge to look back and wonder about a lost “eureka” moment. Yes, there were significant gaps in getting information — though no one should be surprised that Russia had been less than forthcoming in providing information to US authorities. But the focus on more information masks a potentially greater challenge in the years ahead: the need for better management of the information we already have. It is increasingly the case that in all aspects of government, not just security, analyzing data taken from many different sources will drive good public policy decisions.
From searching for clues about terrorist attacks to managing information about children in the care of the Department of Children and Families to tracking the drug overdose epidemic, too often the information is out there but not easily useable. Information can be so dispersed — up and down the chain, across agencies, between the public and private sectors — that we lose the capacity to fully understand the challenges we are facing.
Properly analyzed data can lead to better outcomes for our society well beyond the potential to stop a terrorist attack. For example, better data management about decreased educational opportunities, underemployment and unemployment, and even climatic changes will provide indications of potential spikes in gun violence and drug abuse.
For government to function effectively in the future, it must commit to changes in how we assess information. The primary focus should be on more comprehensive training for public employees on how to gather and most effectively access the information they need. Often there are antiquated and bureaucratic barriers to information sharing that serve no purpose and hinder the capacity of government to interpret different pieces of data from different sources.
In addition, basic investments in technology and personal devices for employees will keep them from spending countless hours at the office searching for clues and out in the field instead. Finally, privacy protections will be better served with a strong management system; de-identification and de-aggregation are common tools that can be utilized to protect individuals while still giving government important information about trends.
Information is only as valuable as our capacity to process, integrate, and interpret it. And, on that front, we still have a ways to go.