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Commerce, EU building economic data library

The Commerce Department and European Commission are opening an online library of economic data, and everyone gets a membership card.

In an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio, Justin Antonipillai, head of the Economic and Statistics Administration, said the hope is to release an “alpha version” of the library by the beginning of November.

The first iteration will include economic indicators like Gross domestic product (GDP), population, employment and disposable income.

“We focused on these because there’s a really great opportunity there for economists, statisticians, journalists, to be able to access more quickly that data, analyze it, compare it on a transatlantic basis and even visualize it,” said Antonipillai, who also serves as counselor the secretary of the Commerce Department. “So while the data is available, and BEA has been making its economic indicators like GDP available for a very long time, and Eurostats has been doing the same in Europe, what we wanted was an ability for people around the country to really be able to get it quickly, get them across time series quickly and to be able to compare and visualize the data here and in Europe much more quickly than they had to do in the past.”

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In the past, when someone wanted to look at GDP trends over a decade timeframe, they would look in a book, pull out the numbers quarter by quarter, probably make a spreadsheet, and then look at the trends.

So while that kind of data has been available for quite some time, Antonipillai said, “it was a pretty manual process. What we wanted to do was make it even easier.”

Enter R, the open-source statistical programming language.

“It allows economists and some other stakeholders, users, to be able to go into our data and pull out exactly the information they want, and to see it and analyze it quickly,” Antonipillai said. “What we did with the [European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content & Technology (DG CONNECT)] is we engaged on this open data — but also very importantly — open source process, where we’re going to build a product that will allow stakeholders to access that data not only from the U.S. data sources, but also from the European data sources and then compare it. So now if you want to see the comparable trend for some of these economic indicators across 5 and 10 years and compare it against some European trends or against European member state trends, you’ll be able to do that much more quickly.”

Something creative

The partnership with DG Connect came about thanks to the commission’s open data priorities.

Because the White House is also pushing for open data and transparency, Commerce reached out about the opportunity for collaboration, Antonipillai said.

“We look at it as beneficial, as really a good thing in a number of ways,” Antonipillai said. “If we can get both us and the European Commission making it easier for you and other experts and journalists to get our data, and use it really meaningfully, quickly, that’s a good thing. But more importantly what we looked at was this was an opportunity to actually get our teams working together.”

While dialogue is good when dealing with complicated issues and tension, Antonipillai said, the R programming language allows more eyes to see the data, which can lead to the introduction of new tools to help build on the library.

“That’s something that’s really exciting,” he said. “The idea that we’re collaborating across the Atlantic, on something that’s both open data, open source, I think has a real opportunity to move forward in a way that just dialogues often don’t.”

Within the federal government, Commerce is working through agency data scientists, 18F, and the U.S. Digital Service, to tackle open data challenges, Antonipillai said.

“We here at Commerce are building products in open source languages like R and Python, to speed access, analysis and visualization of our data,” Antonipillai said. “We’re trying to share our experiences on building something like the Commerce Data Usability Project, which is a terrific project to teach people the kinds of data we have that’s open and available for use. Not only what the data is but how it can be used, how you can actually solve problems both visually and through some of these open source tools, and we’ve posted that project really to teach not only folks outside the government, but inside the government, the kind of data sets we have available.”

Antonipillai said the library tool doesn’t have an official name just yet — Commerce’s first open source project was called “B-E-A-R” — but the hope is to solicit suggestions that combine the”EU, U.S. and R acronym to get us something creative.”