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Beyond the Hype of Big Data: Real IT Innovation

By Janet B. Stevens, CIO, USDA/Food Safety

Janet B. Stevens, CIO, USDA/Food Safety

I’ve never been the one to get excited about the “next big thing,” especially if it’s been labeled with a nebulous term such as Cloud, or even a seemingly simple one like Big Data. It is easy to get caught up in the hype declaring this or that technology to be the solution to our problems, but behind the hype is the sobering truth that there are no magic pills and no magic technologies for that matter.

What does excite me is the potential for new partnerships or for redefining existing ones to solve problems. For me, at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), my job is to keep people safe from food that could harm them. While I try to find technologies that can contribute to ensuring that our Nation’s food supply is safe, I have learned that technology can only take us so far. It is through cooperation and the sharing of information that we have the best chance to breakthrough and find new ways to prevent food borne disease.

I find that connecting with people inside and outside of my organization creates new opportunities to further FSIS’ mission to protect public health. I always learn something from a cold call to a fellow CIO discussing a topic online that I’m struggling with, or from reaching out to a local government leader tweeting about an innovative solution to a challenging public health issue. As FSIS’s sponsor of our strategic goal to enhance innovation, I try to take advantage of what I learn from these contacts in a way that enhances their value to the organization. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to do so.

One innovative approach that I am now pushing in FSIS came from watching, purely by accident last summer, the amazing, dare I say B-grade movie, “Sharknado.” As typically, I had my work smartphone and my personal one on my chair arm. As I watched the completely non-science-based plot unfold before me, I scrolled through Twitter, which I mostly use to funnel work-related information in manageable 140-character bites. And then I started to notice something fascinating. Completely different accounts (both people and “entities”) started to converge during the movie using a simple hashtag: #Sharknado.

“Find technologies that can contribute to ensuring that our nation’s food supply is safe, but I have learned that technology can only take us so far”

Government accounts, entertainment accounts, non-profit accounts, weather accounts and more, all tweeting about this horribly delightful movie. But why?I began to understand that, despite the statistically unlikely possibility of a weather event depositing live sharks from the air capable of attacking people on land (and in pools!), this was becoming a viral event that involved a wide cross-section of the population. Some organizations were preparing for a fake apocalypse, and they were interacting in ways that they could not in any other situation. Government and non-profit organizations, such as the National Weather Service and the American Beyond the Hype of Red Cross, were using and testing their social media strategies for promoting disaster preparedness information using the hashtag in real time, and the public was reacting very positively and sharing information via responses, retweets, and favorites.

When I got into work the next day and used the terms “hashtag” and “Sharknado” with staff and colleagues, I had to hide the two extra heads I had apparently grown overnight. When I came back with a proposal to pilot this approach using fake, or even potentially unbelievable, emergencies to test our social media strategies, I finally started to gain some support after consistently championing the opportunity. And now, having persisted, I have a shiny, red Sharknado mug to commemorate the transformation of a confusing, off-the-wall idea into an actionable way to interact with the public to promote food safety and use data and tools to help us refine our outreach.

The “Sharknado” that I have to worry about is the threat that illnesses from meat or poultry could persist unidentified as an outbreak for weeks or months, causing many more, and more severe, illnesses than would be the case if the outbreak is promptly identified and addressed.  By chance, I read an article on what one local government team was doing to make use of social media to protect public health against the possibility of such an unidentified outbreak.  The team’s efforts sounded promising, so, a cold call later, I was able to meet with representatives of the local government, and it was positively inspirational. We identified that we face similar challenges, and we discussed ways to address them.  The breakthrough, however, was provided by one curious and determined person who asked a simple question:  With so many people sharing information on microblogs, could that information be used in a way to identify disease outbreaks that would be missed using traditional data and methods? And could this be done using existing technology in addition to publicly available information? Surprisingly, the answer was yes.

So, although technology can be awe-inspiring, ever-evolving, and able to adapt to constant change, it is not a solution in and of itself. Technology is an enabler. Real-world problems involve real-world people working, discussing, collaborating—and sometimes failing—together.

By adding technology to these natural and dynamic resources, real innovation and change can happen—all in the name of meeting our missions and strategic plan goals. And, for me, that means saving more lives and keeping more people healthy.

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