Digital Government Olympics: Going For Gold

Brian Lee-Archer

Though the Rio Olympics is now over and in the record books, its social and economic impact on the city of Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil in general, will be debated for many years to come. For the government to draw meaningful conclusions beyond the euphoria of the closing ceremony, a vast array of data will be collected over many years. Not surprisingly, there is an obvious link between data for public policy, the Olympics, and measuring the impact on Brazilian society. There is certainly a role for a digital government in using data to deliver better outcomes for Olympics-hosting cities.

However, a more immediate question I would like to explore is, “who is the greatest athlete at the Rio Olympics?” Two obvious candidates are Usain Bolt  from Jamaica and Michael Phelps from the U.S. Usain Bolt all three gold medals he was expected to win, taking his tally to nine over three Olympics. Michael Phelps has won the most gold medals of any athlete from any sport (23), with five more added to his tally at Rio.

I expect some of you are thinking of other athletes who you consider as (more) worthy contenders for the title of “the greatest athlete at the Rio Olympics.” This kind of discussion can keep sports fans occupied for hours. Everyone has an opinion and people will provide all sorts of statistics and data to support their argument.

If we restrict the debate to Bolt and Phelps (with no disrespect to the many other outstanding athletes), what are we comparing? For a start there are some rather obvious differences that make any sort of meaningful comparisons fraught with danger. Bolt is a sprinter on the athletics track, while Phelps is a swimmer specializing in the most difficult of strokes, butterfly. I can’t imagine we could ever see Bolt and Phelps lining up against each other in any athletic competition to decide once and for all who is the greatest. Imagine adding into the debate Simone Biles, the American gymnast who took home four gold medals … it is getting too hard, so let’s keep the discussion for the moment to Bolt and Phelps.

An argument in favor of Bolt is that he is the fastest man in a sport that everyone in the world can potentially compete in. All you need is a flat piece of ground, so most of the world’s population could, if they wanted, have a go at running (or at least covering the distance of) 100 meters. This is why the event attracts competitors from a majority of the competing nations at the Olympics. It is not so easy for everyone to have a go a swimming – a significant majority of the world’s population doesn’t even have access to an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If they did, few would ever attempt butterfly. It can be reasonably argued that this makes Phelps’ achievements stand out over Bolt’s, as anyone can run, but only the skillful and powerful few can master the art of butterfly.

This is shaping up as a never-ending debate, as I could produce more and more statistics and data points to reinforce the argument one way or the other. Additional data points could be the various opinions of sports fans around the world sharing their views on social media. But should the comparison focus solely on this Olympics, or should we be talking about the greatest Olympian of all time? How do you compare the champions of the 19th and 20th centuries with those of today? Collect more data, survey more sportswriters, or produce a program for television where you seek the opinions from celebrities who may have never been successful in any sport. No matter how much data is collected or how sophisticated the computer algorithms are in making a comparative analysis, the final judgment still comes down to a matter of opinion. And for every opinion on who is the greatest athlete of all time, there will be a counter opinion supported with evidence.

Here lies the link to digital government. Data is the lifeblood of the digital revolution. Some say it is the new oil of the 21st century. As processes are digitized, policymakers and service providers are enriched with data for new insights when making decisions. Just like the argument about Bolt and Phelps, making public policy decisions still demands a human element. While not a matter of life or death, making a call on Bolt vs. Phelps is hard and subjective. In public policy decisions where life and death does matter, people in government have to exercise judgment based on data and the evidence they are presented with. While some decision making can be automated, and cognitive computing offers new and enhanced ways to examine and analyze vast amounts of evidence beyond human capacity, the algorithms and/or computer processes behind these decisions are based on human input.

As we debate the future of work and predict which jobs and industries will disappear and what new jobs will be created, let’s not forget our unique skills as humans, such as how we exercise judgment, compassion, and reason. The rush to digital presents great opportunity for addressing the wicked problems facing society and creating a new era of economic growth and prosperity. There are new challenges to face, including the moral hazards of people relying on decisions made by machines rather than exercising their professional judgment even when they believe the machine may be in error.

In the Olympics of digital government, who will be the greatest and take the gold medal? You, the citizen, just like in the pre-digital world – your opinions and judgment still matter. A digital government will engage with people in making critical evidence-based decisions that can deliver better social and economic outcomes for all. Judgment, compassion, and reason will still be required, as the answers to public policy questions will never be clear-cut or universally agreed. The digital revolution is producing the data. A digital government must produce the people who will do something meaningful with this data and create value for society .

Now back to that important question, who is the greatest Olympian at Rio? I can’t be sure despite all the evidence before me. I am leaning towards Bolt, but I could be persuaded towards Phelps. Perhaps the next edition of Sports Illustrated will enlighten me.

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Brian Lee-Archer

About Brian Lee-Archer

Brian Lee-Archer is director of the SAP Institute for Digital Government Global (SIDG). Launched in 2015, SIDG is a global think tank that aims to create value for government by leveraging digital capability to meet the needs of citizens and consumers of government services. In collaboration with government agencies, universities and partner organizations, SIDG facilitates innovation through digital technology for deeper policy insight and improved service delivery.