Public sector digital transformation-what can data be used for?

Juan Murillo Arias
4 min readJul 14, 2019

Throughout the last years I have talked with many public servants about how data can effectively be transformed into value by public administrations. If there are opportunities in the use of data, why are governments lagging behind private corporations in this race? the quick answer is that they aren’t: the fact that some tech giants provide astonishing examples of data applications can’t be made extensible to the rest of companies, and 99% of them are dealing with uncertainty while exploring this new digital landscape, so generalizations in this sense must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, as the private sector is the one I know best, I find it useful to frame the discussion by answering a previous key question and then do a translation to inspire applications in the public side for the benefit of citizens: what do private corporations use data for?

Corporations integrate DATA into services to enable accurate decisions and actions that foster the fulfillment of corporate mission, while creating value to its customers, employees and shareholders. This general purpose is clear but too open, we need to be more specific.

To achieve so I purpose to follow a methodology that is based on sequential steps: 1st define the scope (“whats”), 2nd the purposes (“what for”), and finally identify business drivers in two levels, to find out the root reasons “why” a data-based application could provide a return and thus should be developed.

For this exercise I will distinguish two kind of purposes: external aims (corporations in their role of products and services providers) and internal aims (corporations as complex systems with internal organizational challenges to be solved).

As it is shown, most use cases end up into just 3 kinds of positive effects: boost income, costs reduction, or productivity improvement.

I have to say that analyzing analytic applications in the corporate environment has been the easy part of the exercise: when transposing those aims to the public sector we face a hard task, that is to define the general aim of public function, and how data fit into it. I do express it as follows: governments integrate DATA into informational services to understand facts and trends needed to take data-driven decisions that enable the fulfillment of government mission -to protect citizens and enhance their lives- while maintaining the rule of law and stability in the interest of society.

Again, I will differentiate two big branches in this taxonomy: external aims (governments in their role of public services providers) and internal aims (governments as complex systems with internal organizational challenges).

Those familiar with the Sustainable Development Goals -agreed by United Nations as prosperity KPIs- will have recognized them somehow in the purpose/”what for” column, an intermediate step to get to the “whys”. However, as it can be appreciated, the convergence in the final returns is much lower than in the private corporations case, the diversity of root reasons answering those “why” questions is much higher now, and this is due to the complexity of public interest definition.

With this reflection I just tried to provide structure to data-based applications for the common good under public initiatives. I would have liked to end this taxonomy illustrating every purpose with an example, but that scope is something that exceeds my spare time availability.

Fortunately, there are already initiatives achieving that census, one that deserves special mention is the 100 questions initiative by the GovLab at New York University, that makes a very necessary problem-driven approach to find out what data-based projects should be developed to enhance well being. Following this problem-based approach should avoid the risks of developing solutions looking for a problem.

I will end with two open questions:

  1. -Although there are non personal data sources that enclose high usefulness (such as satellite images), the most powerful subset of datasources are those generated by individuals. What are the incentives for citizens to share their data and thus enable data applications developed by governments?

2.- How can governments develop solutions based on data registered in the interaction of citizens and private corporations? what kind of agreements can be reached to enable business to government data flows?

Surely, all those aspects will be subject to further research and practical explorations in the following years.



Juan Murillo Arias

MSc Civil Engineer by UPM, Executive MBA by EOI. Experience as urban planner and project manager in technological innovation and smart cities initiatives.