Commerce throwing a life raft to those drowning in its data

The Commerce Department is partly responsible for the explosion of data from the government. The Census Bureau alone conducts about 80 different surveys a year. NOAA produces 29 terabytes of data a day.

So the department is focusing on accessibility and education about its data to rescue public and private sector users from drowning in its information.

“What tools can we use? What tools can we develop and deploy so people can find the information that they need?” said Mark Doms, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for Economic Affairs. “What’s happened over time is a lot of different federal agencies have different websites with their information, and we realized that if we want to make it easier on people is to have some more standardization across our different agencies so once you learn how one website works, how data retrieval at one website works, then it would work on another website too.”

Doms, who oversees the Bureau of Economics and Statistics Administration, which includes the Census Bureau, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, said the department is taking several steps both internally and externally to meet the growing demand and volume of data.

Internally, Commerce is close to naming a new chief data officer and starting up the Data Advisory Council. Together, they will focus on making websites and data easier to use.

“Because they will be housed within the office of the secretary, they’ll have a greater span of control then say just myself,” Doms said. “We will bring in outside experts, a lot of people from the private sector, who have good ideas of what data retrieval tools will be like five years from now. That way we can start employing much better methods so the average citizen, the average person can easily find the information they are looking for.”

Private sector best practices

While the CDO and council gets set up, Doms said he and Secretary Penny Pritzker have been traveling around the country meeting with businesses and associations to better understand how Commerce can meet their short and long-term data needs.

Doms said Commerce is testing out a mapping tool to better display Census data.

“What we’ve been doing is talking to any number of private companies who are really good at doing this and trying to learn what are the best practices in terms of the tools they have and can we incorporate them on our websites, for instance, or how should we partner with them going forward,” he said. “More and more people understand mapping tools just because of their interactions on the Internet. It seems to be technology that is working well. It’s a technology that lots of people know, and it’s a technology that we are looking to use more. Currently, if you go to the Census website, there are about eight different mapping tools on the Census website so we want to consolidate those and make those even easier to use.”

Doms said Census recently redesigned its website and that could help make data easier to find.

“We can now, because of the way the website is designed, better evaluate where people are going on the website and how they are progressing through the website so we can see areas that need to be improved to make the data easier to find,” he said. “Something else that we are doing too is we are spending a lot more time talking to our data customers, asking them about their experiences on our website, accessing our data and getting more direct feedback. We are more quickly incorporating that into how our website is designed.”

More RFIs on the way

The other initiative Commerce is doing to improve its data is releasing a set of requests for information asking industry for help.

NOAA released a RFI in February and received about 60 responses.

Doms said Census, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and other bureaus also will issue RFIs later this fall asking for help from industry, academia and other private sector experts on how best to make data usable and accessible.

“I think what will happen from these RFIs are two things. One is you will have RFPs. And then other RFIs might result in us saying these are great ideas and we can actually doing those ourselves,” he said. “One challenge we have going forward in this data space, in terms of data tools and data technology, that’s a field that is changing so rapidly, it’s hard for us to keep up. So partnering with the private sector or partnering with universities or partnering with people who are really the experts in this area is really the way to go. Sometimes we can do some internal things to make our websites better, for instance. Other times we will just have to partner with the private sector because of the nature of the challenge.”

Commerce recently announced a new partnership with the Governance Laboratory, a research center that uses data to solve problems in technology and science.

The agency also recently participated in a DataJam where it worked with the Labor Department, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and private sector experts to figure out how best to connect citizens in their teens and early 20s with career opportunities.

Doms said Commerce is using data jams to expose information to people who may not know it exists, and then they individually or as a group apply problem solving or discovery techniques to the information.

“We know that the private sector is using data more intensively than ever. They use data because they want to make smart decisions so they can become more competitive, and competitive companies add jobs and it’s good for the economy,” he said. “So, shouldn’t the government also use data to become more efficient? When we conduct the population census, we do that every 10 years, if we want to go out and survey 320 million people, that’s just a huge undertaking. If we use data from a variety of sources so we can do that operation, which costs us billions and billions of data, so if we can use data to more intelligently survey our people, wouldn’t that be good? So in fact, we think by using data and better technology, we will be able to save about $5 billion when we do the 2020 Census.”

Doms said Census may be able to better predict when people are home, which houses are occupied and stop using so much resources to do house-to-house follow up.

“We are running tests all the time. We have a test actually here in the D.C. area and we are testing these techniques. We will run an even larger test in 2015. We know that when we do a Census, we have to do it right,” he said. “All of these tests are actually going pretty well. Our technology seems to be working well.”

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