Commerce Department spearheading project to ‘take data the last mile’

What does a plumbing hose have to do with affordable housing or a safe commute?

In the context of the White House’s Opportunity Project, a lot more than you’d think.

The Commerce Department on Oct. 6 announced it would be spearheading the ongoing Opportunity Projects, the Obama Administration’s effort to use big data to solve issues like housing, hiring and healthcare.

Justin Antonipillai, counselor to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, told Federal News Radio that his agency was the right one for the job because — as it’s known by some — it’s “America’s data agency.”

“We have a very valuable set of data coming out at Census that has import and export information in it,” Antonipillai said. “It shows you by [Harmonized System] codes, who is buying our goods and where we are buying stuff from. Why does that matter? It matters because if you’re a mid-market plumbing company, you should know where your competitors are buying their hoses from and where your competitors are selling their hoses. We’ve seen when companies are given access to that information, if you know there’s a whole market in a part of the country, a part of the world, that you didn’t know about for hoses, you can target your sales there. That’s how you bring data instead of gut instinct to driving growth, and that helps communities, that helps small and medium-sized businesses grow and really accomplish their missions.”

While plumbing supplies aren’t the focus of the big data initiative, it’s an example of just one specific kind of information in an ever-growing data library waiting to be put to public use.

“We have incredible data in house, between the weather service, the Census Bureau, the International Trade Administration, we have export data, demographic data, economic data, and we are really focused on enabling innovation using that data and to bring data in our agency to drive better use of our programs,” said Antonipillai, who also has the delegated duties of the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. “The reason we thought it was a perfect fit — for our data mission what we’ve been focused on is strategic matter on data. The Opportunity Project fits right in and we have the team to do it.”

Helping people to thrive

The administration on Thursday announced 29 new digital tools under the Opportunity Project.

“The tools … were built during an eight week software development sprint by non-profits, companies, and students to help families, community leaders, and local officials expand access to jobs, schools, affordable housing, and other resources that are needed to thrive,” according to a White House fact sheet. 

The new tools include:

  • mySidewalk’s tool that uses data from Census, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to inform commuters about traffic fatalities and commuting costs.
  • Fitbit’s tool using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide information on diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
  • Hackernest’s “Opportunity.HackerNest.com” which pulls data from the Labor Department’s OpenSkills API and the Office of Personnel Management’s USAJOB’s API to help people find and navigate federal government job postings.

Antonipillai said the plan is to find valuable data sets and then focus on making them usable.

“You have to start with the infrastructure, you have to have the data, then start wrangling it, make it presentable, put it in a way that experts can access it,” Antonipillai said. “What you’re seeing in the Opportunity Project is taking the data the last mile, building solutions that a lot of groups who aren’t getting our data can really use to solve a problem.”

DJ Patil, chief data Scientist at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the Opportunity Project is personally important to him because unlike so many other data projects built for a specific set of people, “what is happening here is we’re connecting federal data, local data, with the people who need the value the most.”

‘Opportunity’ for feds

While the Opportunity Project applauds private sector innovation, both Patil and Antonipillai said the effort is also a time for the federal workforce to shine.

Patil said the Opportunity Project is a way of “hybridizing” the ideas of the public and private sectors.

“Projects do not work without the federal workforce,” Patil said. “This is the distillation of the federal workforce’s ideas, built in a way that’s scalable through the technology platform that people have made in the private sector.”

Antonipillai said Commerce is hiring data scientists and software developers.

“We have a broad set of agencies and bureaus inside the department and around the government that are trying to get the data out in ways that will solve big public problems,” Antonipllai said. “That’s why it’s exciting, and our team members are joining us because we have a  noble mission; we want to take an asset and get people who aren’t using it to use it better. That’s why you should join us.”

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