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A mission for big data in government: How hyper-personalization can transform customer service

What do we really do with all that data we collect in government? The answer must be to improve customer service and provide a radical transformation in the way governments interact with residents. Anything less will bring big problems. Here's why.

Credit: Shutterstock/Novelo

Big data – everyone is talking about it. Even governments are jumping on the bandwagon.

Last year, big data cracked the list of “most talked about” hot topics, joining mobile, social media and cloud computing as top strategies that every enterprise must implement. But what do we really do with all that data we collect in government?

The answer must be to improve customer service and provide a radical transformation in the way governments interact with residents. Anything less will bring big problems. Here’s why.

Big data in 2013

   There were plenty of news stories in 2013 that examined the ways big data is transforming government. Such as:

1. Enhancing security and preventing fraud
2. Improving service delivery and emergency response
3. Democratizing information

While I support these innovations and see value for each area, the overall mission for big data seems to be struggling at the moment – from a customer perspective. In fact, when I mention the words “government” and “big data” to my friends and family in the same sentence, their eyebrows go up. Many of them associate “big data” with “big brother” or worse, bigger (more bureaucratic) government.

For example, one recent conversation about big data helping to reduce fraud and strengthen government security led to holiday comments like:

“Oh, you mean the NSA-snooping, Snowden thing?”

(I get defensive) “No, not like that… I’m talking about linking data across different departments – from driver’s licenses to tax data to school records….”

“Well that scares me just as much….”

(Another relative jumped into the conversation) “Is that why they are building that huge facility in Utah? Aren’t they storing all my Internet interactions and phone calls as well? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with them having so much of my information and putting it all in one place, along with everything else the government knows about us….”

You get the picture. Trying to suggest that state or local governments are somehow "different" on data doesn’t work very well either. Believe me, I’ve tried that.

So what do I suggest? Is there a “killer-app” or better marketing campaign needed for big data in government? My gut says there is. But the key will be demonstrating the value to citizens. Explain: Why should their data be used in these new ways?

The answer(s) may come from looking at how the private sector is using data analytics to mine data to improve the overall customer experience.

Defining hyper-personalization

Let’s start by defining a few new terms. Reading through holiday predictions regarding big data, I ran into several articles on topics like hyper-personalization, predictive personalization and super-targeted marketing. What do these terms mean?

Hyper-personalization uses customer relationship data and other data gathered from multiple sources to provide the right products, services and content at the right time – personalized specifically to that customer. Put simply, it enables a new and improved customer interaction.

This blog by Matt Graham describes the trend well:

"As we move into the age of Big Data, marketers have the opportunity to take the conversation and the customer experience to a new level with hyper-personalization. As we evolve, best practices in marketing will center on enabling customer choices, with functional personalization being the true differentiator….

Hyper-personalization is about skipping the personalized salutation and going instead with something that is likely to move the needle. For example, a postcard showing a personalized driving distance and directions from the recipient’s house to their nearest branch or store is an excellent use of personalization….

Look for marketers to put the customer in the driver’s seat of the relationship, giving them control over how much they share with companies and how they personalize their relationship with your brand.

But a warning from Matt: …Targeted marketing and data driven marketing are increasingly under fire from consumer advocate groups criticizing the irresponsible use of data. Digging too deep into personal information, or using data in ways that don’t offer consumers true benefit, jeopardizes the legitimate uses that help filter out irrelevant offers, less than ideal timing, or information portrayed in undesired channels."

We are approaching an era of hyper-personalization, according to this article from CIO Insight.

“We are moving into a new era of hyper-targeting. Marketers are constantly trying to super-personalize their messages and push the right deals to drive our buying decisions. Today’s technology has increasingly enabled a superior capture of context in the online world.”

This kind of experience will become expected by many customers. Other related trends like predictive personalization will enable a new level of digital hospitality. Data gathered can be analyzed to anticipate behaviors and be prepared to provide great customer service. For example:

“I checked into my favorite New York hotel and was greeted by the amazing front desk staff by my name. The clerk asked how my trip from Boston went and whether I needed a cab in the morning, like I usually do. In my room, there was a nice welcome note from the GM that proactively offered a wakeup call.”

Getting personalization right

According to Ashley Friedlein, there are four important Ps of personalization: privacy, physical, predictive and proactive. Here’s a few thoughts that I really like on each item.

Privacy"Transparency and a real value exchange (what are you giving customers in exchange for their permission/data?) is more important than the specific technologies or laws."

Physical"Augmented reality (AR) can add an information layer to the physical world that is entirely personal. Likewise the ‘internet of things’ can give a digital, personalised, life and experience to physical goods and objects."

Predictive – "Our marketing needs to be as natural, relevant and helpful as possible. We have to aspire to predictive personalisation based both on empirical data (think Amazon) and serendipity or ‘sideways’ experiences (think

As sensitively as possible, with a level of brand trust and authority, we should be able to tell our customers what they should like, buy, and experience, and they will be grateful for our help."

Proactive - "We might think now that pushing information proactively at customers is a bad thing. I think in the future they will expect this as long as the experience is correctly crafted and choreographed….

In the world of apps, the internet becomes most useful when we can do things. The future of digital marketing, and personalisation, is about verbs (think ‘Like’) not nouns."

Our challenge: Learn from private sector

Governments need to be able demonstrate the value to the collection of (even more) big data, and getting it wrong could bring about serious consequences. There may not be second (or third) chances when it comes to citizen trust with data, since the "ice is thin" for many regarding this topic.

For example, this Washington Post article describes growing concerns that “your car may become a blabbermouth” with all of the driver data that will be collected.

While there are amazing possibilities to innovate services with new (and vastly more) data from public and private sources, a backlash may be occurring now from some privacy advocates. I urge government technology leaders to examine private sector trends in uses of big data to radically improve customer experiences. Learn from the plans and programs to use hyper-personalization.

Bottom line, if we execute this wisely and communicate the wider message that governments want citizens to be able to truly "surf your values" online - big data can bring great options and big benefits - like the hotel example above. If not, big data projects will be seen as big brother and ultimately fail. 

Governments must show how big data can bring real improvements in personalized customer service. Otherwise, the masses will opt-out.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.
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