By Fredrick M. Bobo | Information Systems Audit Manager, AFROSAI-E

“The concept of big data has been topical for the last few years. Understandably so because it has been one of the technological trends of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). When it comes to technology and its evolution, no one, including public sector auditors, want to (or be seen to) remain behind. Occasionally one comes across topics of how audit will be affected or can use artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain or other 4IR tech trends.

To me, the most consistent talk among the public sector auditors I interact with has been about big data. I have listened to discussions which usually center around the public sector auditors’ obsession with the “big data challenge”. What to do with it, how to be prepared for it, how to use it in audit is what is being grappled with. When interrogated further, the issue is not really a big data challenge but rather a data challenge. Most of the auditors I have interacted with struggle to explain that they have a big data problem. At times merely having a challenge of large volumes of data is seen as a big data challenge. Despite the phenomenon having been around for a long time there does not seem to be clear understanding of what big data is and what possibilities it can bring. More importantly, there isn’t adequate preparation for it.

In our AFROSAI-E study on how to integrate big data in public sector audit, we partly defined big data as large complex data sets that are beyond the capabilities of traditional data-processing applications. The characteristics of this complex data is defined by the 7 “V”s (Johnson, 2019): volume, variety, velocity, veracity, variability, visualisation and value. Understanding these Vs will give an auditor a clear perspective of what big data is.

As the public sector auditor tries to understand what big data is or isn’t, they should not lose sight of the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that they should live the values of INTOSAI P-12 and make a difference to the lives of citizens. The discussion should not focus on big or not big data but rather the insights that can be drawn from the data which will lead to better audit, better recommendations, and ultimately better decision-making in governments. This makes the last V – value, key. We have seen many uses of big data, both in public and private sector, that the discussion of what is possible with it is rather moot.

My views on the data question, which resonates with the AFROSAI-E study are that:

  • Quality data or use of data trumps quantity
  • Auditors need to pay attention to country digitalisation and know where useful data is being generated/stored.
  • SAIs should work smarter by using data analytics in audit engagements, and in their strategical and operational decision-making.
  • The data issue should be on the SAIs’ agenda – SAIs should ensure they have the right People, Processes, and Technology to make strategic/operational use of the data.

SAIs should become deliberately and strategically data-driven in their audit operations. Get the basics right before worrying about big data. A data-driven SAI will not struggle to integrate big data in public sector audit”.