Census Bureau training 5 agencies to run ‘do-it-yourself’ data sprints

The Census Bureau’s Opportunity Project matches agencies up with tech teams from the private sector to create digital projects that benefit the public and unlock new benefits from federal data.

This year’s sprints focused on addressing COVID-19 and post-pandemic recovery. But for the year ahead, the bureau is also working with five agencies to facilitate these data sprints on their own.

Opportunity Project Director Drew Zachary told Federal News Network her team is working on developing a “do-it-yourself model” for partner agencies, while the bureau serves as an accelerator for larger projects.

“Things that previously the Census Bureau has been in the driver’s seat for, we’ll really be empowering these agencies to run that themselves and really benefit from learning this whole process with support from our team,” Zachary said in an interview.

The bureau is working with two other Commerce Department components — the Minority Business Development Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)— as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Zachary said some of the agencies, like HUD and Treasury, have already worked with the bureau on tech sprints, while some of the other agencies are less familiar with the concept.

“They’re becoming more familiar with this concept, sort of an evolution of the hackathon, but we still see a lot of agencies come in who are very foreign to this way of working and think of … the main way to have a working relationship is through a contract or something that’s more conventional. As they go through this process, we really see them benefit so much from the idea that we can work together across sectors in a very lightweight, constructive way,” Zachary said.

The bureau is also branching out to local governments, and is working with New York City’s chief technology officer to sponsor data challenges.

The bureau last piloted the TOPx concept with the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance, which worked with Suffolk University and Syracuse University on a sprint focused on civics education.

The Census Bureau launched the Opportunity Project six years ago as part of a governmentwide effort to better leverage federal data. The bureau helps match agencies with industry talent, then sets teams off on a 12-week sprint, broken into two-week increments.

“Agencies learn about agile development and the idea of iterating — the idea of not knowing exactly what you’re going to build when you start and the fact that that can be a positive thing, because it enables so many more diverse ideas to come forward, and really better ideas,” Zachary said.

During the bureau’s demo day in May, the Food and Drug Administration showcased a sprint focused on COVID-19 diagnostic data. But in the months ahead, the bureau will launch news sprints focused more broadly on pandemic recovery.

“Our theme for the whole year is going to be the world post-COVID, and thinking about that sort of long-term economic recovery, how our social systems and economy may be forever changed even as we move beyond the pandemic,” Zachary said.

The Opportunity Project continues to develop new features. In 2019, the bureau introduced a prize competition and awarded five $20,000 prizes to teams across five different categories. Zachary said the bureau is looking at awarding even more funding to teams this year.

Zachary said the bureau is also looking at ways to open the data sprint process to non-English speakers in order to tailor these projects to different demographics, such as minority business owners.

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