I recently had the privilege of moderating the Smart Cities panel during the Big Data, Open Data: Inspiring Corporate and Civic Innovation Conference hosted by the University of Phoenix. The idea for the conference came up in a conversation I had almost a year ago with Dennis Bonilla, the executive dean of the College of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Phoenix, who has spent the majority of his career driving technology innovation and strategies for corporations like Microsoft, having previously served as vice president of Oracle.

I first met Dennis when I responded to his post on Twitter sharing a column I had written about some of the reasons girls didn't like to code. The ensuing exchange led to a series of emails and phone calls, and within a few weeks, he invited me and my company's COO to join him at the university's headquarters in Arizona where he had also assembled some of his team from across the country to begin a dialogue about the university's role in training a work force for the new digital age.

For Dennis, the conference in Dallas was really a continuation of that same conversation, but this time with some of the movers and shakers within the corporate world. "I wanted to bring industry leaders together to explore the challenges for preparing tomorrow's work force, as well as the opportunities surrounding data for both business growth and solving problems in our cities," he says.

From the opening keynote, delivered by Dr. Erica Groshen, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to the final presentation by Joe Hill, Hewlett-Packard enterprise fellow and chief technologist for analytics, it was enlightening to hear the perspectives on the future of data from leaders within major corporations like IBM, KPMG, Walmart, AT&T, Verizon, Cognizant, and Sabre, as well as within the government.

A few of the more interesting nuggets of insight I took away:

Privacy Is Paramount for Volunteer Participation in Data Gathering

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Despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics falling within the Department of Labor, one thing that Dr. Erica Groshen wants to make abundantly clear is that the data submitted to their department is not shared with other agencies for enforcement purposes.

"The American people entrust us with sensitive data because they know that confidentiality is of the utmost importance to BLS. They understand that we use these data only to produce key economic statistics that help companies, policymakers, and family members make smart decisions," she said. "The information respondents give to us is protected by law and is not shared with anyone, including other government agencies."

Big Data Is Changing More Than Just the Bottom Line for Corporations

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IBM's emerging roles and markets leader, Cortnie Abercrombie, says big data is about so much more that just financial gains. She said it's "changing every aspect of life, not just corporate bottom lines. I'm watching data and analytics being used to solve for everything from cancer to adaptive learning to farming."

She added that for some, data and analytics bring fear of being disrupted and the need to catch up quickly, while others see it as a huge opportunity to do innovative initiatives that can change the future. "No matter the side, data and analytics are bringing with it a whole new inquisitive fail-fast culture (versus 100 percent risk averse), new tools and techniques, and the need for a whole new set of skills and multifaceted talent."

For some corporations, big data isn't a side-effect of doing business but the main product.

"We've evolved from the 'big' in 'big data' and now we just call it 'data' at Progressive...it's kind of understood," said Progressive's data and analytics business leader, Pawan Divakarla. "We don't sell something tangible, so data is really our product, when you think about it. The challenge for companies is no longer, 'How do we secure data about our customers?'--which is a given--but rather, 'How do we utilize it to give them a unique experience that builds trust and loyalty?' Our Snapshot program is one example of how we answered that question," he said.

Zulfikar Sidi, vice president of enterprise data and analytics at Sabre Corporation, had some great advice for companies wanting to leverage data:

"To be successful, you have to make it easy for people to access data without cumbersome processes," he said, adding that the most successful are "those who know how to use the data to tell stories."

We're Creating a Boatload of Data...and It's Hard to Protect

Well, to be accurate, it's a lot more than a boatload--we're talking data lakes.

While the spirited discussion among panelists covered everything from the legal side of security--such as the need for agreements that clearly define who owns the data--and best practices for using, developing, and storing data, one of the more interesting nuggets to emerge from the session was that the amount of data being captured by the tools we use to protect our data is creating additional challenges.

"The growing sophistication of hackers is making it more difficult to identify attacks with point solution security tools that utilize filters, policies, or signature-based detection methods," said Jim Covington, chief technologist at Booz Allen Hamilton. "Aggravating the issue is the overwhelming amount of data captured by these tools and the inability of security teams to synthesize the data into meaningful and actionable information."

But there was good news. Covington said that the current challenges are "leading to the increased use of 'data lakes,' where data scientists can apply predictive analytics to identify attack patterns that may have otherwise gone undetected."

Big Data Can Open the Door to New Opportunities

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With the explosion of corporations, organizations, and government agencies focusing not only on the internal value of big data but also its bigger value to society, the opportunities to make significant impact have also increased. Finding ways to identify, track, and harness all of this activity is no easy task.

One newly formed agency hoping to leverage big data from both the public and private sectors is Dallas Innovation Alliance. Jennifer Sanders, DIA's executive director, said that the issues big data presents in implementing smart city initiatives are immense.

"Data provides visibility, connection points, and analytics that drive results," she said. "We are focused on the integration of public and private data formats and the creation of an open platform that allows DIA to maximize insights while allowing citizens and startups to build off of that data and provide transparency. Dallas has made great initial strides through its open data platform, and we want to leverage and build on that progress."