By: Genna Gores on July 27th, 2017

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Brookings Institution Explores the Relationship Between Big Data and Government Agencies

Big Data  |  Transportation

When it comes to transportation planning, it seems like Big Data—location data created by connected cars and trucks, smartphones, and wearables—is the next big thing. How public agencies will actually use and implement this data is the big question on people’s minds.

With 2.5 quintillion bytes of Big Data being created daily, and much of this data offering valuable insights for transportation planning, it almost seems negligent for government agencies to not use this information source. Brookings Institution, a non-partisan research institute, recently looked into why government agencies are lagging behind on Big Data adoption. With the help of our CEO, Laura Schewel, the Brookings Institution has brought to light the core disconnects between government agencies and Big Data, and some of their findings may surprise you! In this blog post, I’ll take you through our key takeaways from the report.

Why Does Big Data Matter for Government Agencies?

According to the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program’s most recent report “Modernizing government’s approach to transportation + land use data,” the public sector used to be the leading investor in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of transportation and land use data. With the invention of smartphones and other smart technology, much of this data collection has moved over to the private sector—the new leading provider. Now, in comparison, the traditional data sources used by planners are expensive, slow, and lack the empirical information that modern transportation planning requires.

For example, most surveys of daily travel habits are conducted rarely – think every seven years. They don’t even include specific origin-destination information, which Big Data can provide more quickly and accurately. An example of traditional data collection backfiring is in San Francisco, CA where the last major transportation plan was developed in 2012—before Uber or Lyft really took off. Now, if SFMTA had Big Data in their arsenal, they could use it to update their 2012 plans to better reflect the impacts of ridesharing.


Planners’ data needs are more dire today than ever before because transportation is a rapidly changing industry, especially with the rise of ridesharing programs.

The Brookings Institution report mentions a few key ways that Big Data will benefit transportation and land use planning. For example, Big Data can give information on bicyclists, pedestrians, and mass transit travel, in comparison to traditional data sources that just capture vehicle trips. Agencies can combine travel behavior data with insurance data and geo-located police data to provide information for traffic safety improvements. Lastly Big Data—from activity apps, geo-tagged photos, and smartphones—can provide information on popular public spaces. This can help planners increase their return on investments by adding in public programming or amenities to popular locations.

Why Isn’t Big Data Being Used by all Government Agencies?

Many of the reasons our federal and local agencies aren’t jumping at the chance to use Big Data are communicated very explicitly in the Brookings Institution’s Report.

Brookings identified a few key reasons why Big Data has had a slow adoption process in the public sector:

  • No set standards and regulations for Big Data
  • Privacy Concerns
  • Old technology that requires updating
  • A need for funds to access data, scientists, and storage
  • Disconnect between private and public sector
  • Validation of Big Data

Although making the switch to Big Data is not always an easy one, it is necessary to make the needed infrastructure updates in the U.S. We think that the report says it best, “With limited capital investment resources, a taxpaying public demanding results from their money, and shifting travel models, antiquated data could get in the way of optimized decision-making.” The jump to Big Data may seem daunting, but this is an opportune moment for the public sector to make the appropriate long-term decisions rather than struggle to keep up in the short-term. 

So, What Does This All Mean?

While the main focus of this report is the difficulties that come with implementing Big Data into the public sector, the transition is already starting to happen. Over here, at StreetLight Data, we are already seeing the major success that DOTs and MPOs have when they use Big Data. The fact that Brookings Institution is writing an official report on this topic shows that Big Data is already making the leap into the public sector. It is commonly said that the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that one even exists, and the Brookings Institution report does just that.

StreetLight Data wants to help bridge the gap between the government and Big Data. For more information on how we are doing this, download our free report.

Genna Gores, a native San Franciscan, is a summer intern at StreetLight Data. Genna is a rising senior at Scripps College, where she is pursuing a multidisciplinary degree in Environmental Science, Economics, and Politics.


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