“When we have all data online it will be great for humanity. It is a prerequisite to solving many problems that humankind faces,” said Belgian informatics engineer Robert Cailliau.

The world has certainly seen the power of data in the fight against Covid-19. But as much as it is a force for good, a detailed system must be in place to ensure data is used correctly and securely.

Senior data officials from Singapore and New Jersey discussed what makes a robust data strategy at a recent roundtable.

1. Get the fundamentals right

Fundamentals like data governance and security must first be in place. Organisations need to be clear on what they want to get out of data – then put the right processes in place to ensure data is used ethically and securely.

Singapore’s Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) is planning to heighten data security and “trade data in use, in motion, and at rest”, said Jing Yi Cheng, the Head of Capdev & Data Engineering, Ops Capabilities, Data Science & AI Centre of Expertise, HTX.

The agency is exploring ways to minimise unnecessary data collection and ensure the appropriate person is looking at the right kind of data, she added. Access control techniques and encryption would help to enhance data protection and prevent security compromises.

Governments typically face two challenges in managing data, said Andy Choy, Sales Director of Cloudera. First, the “variety, velocity, and volume of data” coming in makes it tricky for agencies to classify and categorise data fast enough. The second is making data accessible to users everywhere.

A lot of planning is needed to design the right data infrastructure that can handle the “large explosion” of data in the future, he added. Agencies might have an infrastructure that allows them to deal with terabytes of data, but “in a very short time, you need to deal with petabytes of data.”

2. Look to the cloud

Once the fundamentals of data security and governance is settled, cloud is a “good place to realise the value of data in a very quick manner”, said Choy. Data onboarding can be done very quickly, and the “elastic” nature of cloud’s infrastructure makes it easy for government agencies to share data.

The New Jersey state government used cloud to set up a website that showed how Covid-19 funding from the federal government was being used, said Poonam Soans, Chief Data Officer (CDO) and Director of Application Development at the New Jersey Office of Information.

“We set it up within 90 days. And again, I do not think we could have done it if we did not use the cloud,” she added.

Cloud has a “big future in financial services”, said Vincent Loy, Assistant Managing Director of Technology at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). But the industry “has not embraced cloud as much as it can” and should do more, he added.

There are definitely inherent security risks, said Loy, and agencies need to ensure their applications are ready to embrace cloud. “When you move and shift without changing the application to make it cloud-native, you are basically increasing the operation risk without increasing the capability within the organisation.”

MAS had to rearchitect a lot of its applications and infrastructure before moving to the cloud, he added. It had to be done in a “thoughtful, risk-aware manner”, but helps organisations access the capabilities of cloud.

Healthcare benefits from a trusted relationship between medical providers and patients, said Thomas Lew, Group Chief Data and Strategy Officer at the National Healthcare Group. The transition to cloud can be “dehumanising”, and the group is looking into how to augment that “physical, warm, trusting relationship” with the cloud.

3. Train officials

“Tone at the top” is extremely important, and if agencies want to transition to cloud, leaders must “not only speak it, but do it and practice it”, said Loy.

Leaders play a quintessential role in this transformation, said Cheng, and leaders need a “clear vision to bring the pack forward”. HTX is also ensuring that no one is left behind and training public servants to keep them up to speed.

The Data Science & AI Centre of Expertise in HTX is trying to start small and show how technology can help to increase the efficiency of processes, she added. “There will be certain practices that are engraved in certain units for quite some time. So the challenge is to actually, you know, break the current model and then bring them forward.”

Cloudera has training courses available on big data and machine learning for organisations to upskill their staff, said Choy. It also has a global pool of customers that agencies can be connected with to learn from.

Data will only become a more precious commodity to face the challenges of tomorrow. Implementing the right frameworks and systems will be key in harnessing the full potential of data.

Catch the playback of the roundtable here.