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Author's profile photo Paul O'Sullivan

How about “Big Sister” instead of “Big Brother” for better Digital Government

When most people think of a big sister I hope they think of someone loving, nurturing and caring.  I grew up with 2 brothers so I did not personally experience this.  Yet I am sure that a good big sister grows into great mother of which I know I had the world’s best.    

I hear you ask, so what does this have to do with improving digital government?

There is a pervasive attitude that Governments cannot be trusted when it comes to its citizen’s personal data.  Many people believe there is a lack of openness and transparency from government.  This lack of transparency typically leads to mistrust. 

My first introduction to the concept of trust in government and spying on citizens came in “high school” while reading 1984 by George Orwell.  (A top 100 all-time book according to most critics)

As far as I know George Orwell introduced the world to “Big Brother”

For those who have not read 1984 by George Orwell let be introduce “Big Brother” as defined by Wikipedia:

Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is ostensibly the leader (either the actual enigmatic dictator or perhaps a symbolic figurehead) of Oceania, a totalitarian state wherein the ruling Party wields total power “for its own sake” over the inhabitants.

In the society that Orwell describes, every citizen is under constant surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens (with the exception of the Proles). The people are constantly reminded of this by the slogan “Big Brother is watching you”: a maxim which is ubiquitously on display. In modern culture the term “Big Brother” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties, often specifically related to mass surveillance.

In the movie the “telescreens” had an image of Big Brother.  Quite creepy!


For this blog I want to ignore the intelligence community.  I want to talk about regular government and how they can collect and use citizen data for public good.   What I would like to hear about are more government big data stories regarding improving citizen experience and outcomes and not just tackling fraud, waste and abuse.

I am sure it is fair to say that “Government” knows a lot about their citizens.  (Slightly tongue in cheek, perhaps not as much as Google, Facebook, or Amazon).  However what government know about its citizens is often of little use to its citizens.  There is not really a single entity “Government”.  Often governments do not have a single view of their citizen.  Some of the citizen data is still in paper files.  Some data is owned and stored by a social agency, other data by a tax agency or a health agency.  Some is at the Federal level, while other at State level and more at City/County level. So all told some “Government” know everything about us, but not in a single, usable place.  I would think this is a common government big data issue.  Can this be solved using a government cloud?

Think about a citizen that facing hardship.  Perhaps they were recently made redundant / unemployed.  Perhaps someone became disabled due to an accident. They are probably already stressed.  It must be very frustrating for this citizen to have to tell the government something that they already know.  In an ideal world the government should know from a prior event or data point and proactively reach out to the citizen.  The citizen does not always know or care that the date is owned or stored by another department or agency. They want government to have a single view of them.  They often see “Government” as a single entity.  They expect the same world class  “experience” that they get from their favorite retailer.   When citizens read about smart cities this experience does not make them think they live in a smart city. 

So why does the retailer or e-commerce company deliver a great customer experience?  More often than not they have a great customer profile.  They know you, they know their customers.  The same is true with a great family doctor or your favorite bar / restaurant.  They know you, what you like, what you need etc…

Can the Government build this same great citizen profile?  And do so in an open and transparent way?  Can they give their citizens access to their data?  Let the citizen verify the data the government has on them.  Enable the citizen to authorize how and what the government can use this data for.  Allow the citizens to opt in and opt out of all or certain uses of their data or even certain subsets of their data.

The benefits to the citizens who opt in would be great.  Citizens could get a world class experience when dealing with governments.  The entire experience could be personalized for them.  It could make them aware of benefits they are eligible for. It could dramatically simplify the application and filing process for many benefits and processes. It could automate or eliminate many processes.

I think we should call this “Big Sister” instead of Big Brother.  Let’s separate the 2 use cases.  We should welcome a “Big Sister” approach to improve Citizen Experience for those who opt in. 

What do you think of such an approach?  Would you be okay with government using this data for your benefit? 

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