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Learning from America’s Data Agency

Below is an excerpt from GovLoop’s latest guide, Capitalizing on the Open Data Revolution. You can access the full guide here

Since the founding of the United States, Commerce has been collecting important data about the American economy. From the first Census in 1790 to the founding of the Patent Office in 1802, the department has been America’s leading data collection agency.

“We are America’s Data Agency both by mission and mandate,” said Mike Kruger, director of digital engagement at Commerce.

Departmentwide, agencies are collecting data about nearly every kind of economic indicator – and many of them are trying to make the data useful. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA collects more than 20 terabytes of data per day, nearly twice that of the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress. The data encompasses everything from Doppler radar systems to weather satellites, from tide gauges to information about ships and aircraft. But right now, only a fraction of that data is available to the public.

The NOAA case is an example of one of the main challenges facing the agency: quantity over quality. Although the agency collects troves of data, NOAA leaders wanted to be sure that the data released was actually useful for developers. To understand how to optimize their publicly accessible data, NOAA released in February 2014 a request for information (RFI) to engage with the private sector.

The RFI will help NOAA understand how to make its data more accessible to the public. By opening its data and increasing engagement with developers, NOAA’s community and the private sector, department officials hope to turn those 20 terabytes of data into meaningful public-sector solutions.

NOAA received more than 70 responses to the RFI and is working with respondents and other agencies to formulate a plan for making the data useful. Ultimately, NOAA’s goal is to create a data ecosystem that will be adaptable as the public’s data demands change.

NOAA’s efforts to find new ways to open and use its data are part of a larger departmentwide data strategy at Commerce. NOAA officials recognize that the department holds the keys to the economy, and by making the data freely accessible, they can support citizen activists in creating new public services and help businesses unlock strategies to gain a competitive edge.

In fact, Commerce’s 2014-18 strategic plan has a pillar dedicated to data innovation. Through it, Commerce seeks to:

  • Maximize the value of Commerce data to governments, businesses and communities.
  • Make data easier to find, access and use.
  • Partner with other government agencies and the private sector to improve interoperability and dissemination.
  • Collect and manage data more efficiently and less intrusively.
  • Spark innovation and fuel entrepreneurship with open dialogue and integrated feedback.

To meet these goals, open data will play a critical role for the agency.

“There are 9 million businesses in the U.S., and we obviously can’t touch them all, so using our open data with third parties provides the ability to reach additional American businesses and is vital to the ongoing data efforts,” Kruger said.

One example of how Commerce is already having success comes from its International Trade Administration (ITA).

Open Government at Commerce: Trade Developer Portal

ITA is responsible for strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. business at home and abroad by promoting trade and investments. To meet its objectives, ITA recently launched developer.trade.gov, a portal that gives software developers access to information on U.S. exports and international trade via APIs. The data is designed to help U.S. small-business exporters understand how to expand overseas. Currently the portal includes data on:

  • Trade events.
  • Market research.
  • Trade leads.
  • Locations of domestic and international export assistance centers.
  • Trade news and articles.

Since launching in July 2014, the initiative has helped advance the agency’s data objectives – and ITA has also heard case studies about success from users.

“Within 72 hours of developer.trade.gov being live, we found that a Fortune 20 company who used to literally copy and paste our PDFs into their intranet, now was using our APIs to immediately transfer them,” Kruger said. “Now, an employee can go from simply copying and pasting to doing more valuable work for the company, and the company also gets every update as soon as we publish something new.”

Within the first two weeks, ITA saw its reach expand. For example, Kruger said one company had indexed all of the ITA market research and upcoming events and started to share that information with thousands of its users, which allowed ITA to reach new markets it couldn’t get to before.

How Commerce is Creating a Framework for Open Data

To help galvanize open data at Commerce and meet the objectives of its strategic plan, department officials have taken three important steps to improving how it uses data.

1. Hiring a Chief Data Officer

Currently, the department is looking to hire a chief data officer. By announcing this role, Commerce follows the lead of the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Reserve Board and National Institutes of Health, all of which were early hirers of CDOs. The CDO will be responsible for managing data departmentwide and thinking of new strategies to spur innovation and collaboration efforts.

“What we don’t do, or what we have not done well, is having Census and Patent and Trademark Office or International Trade Administration collaborate and build common systems,” Kruger said. “The CDO is going to be doing a lot of that internal work to improve the mechanisms between Commerce, so that we are ultimately better serving the customer.”

2. Creating an Open Data Advisory Committee

Commerce will also create a data advisory council. Comprised of private-sector leaders, the council will advise the department on how to best leverage data.

“We are going to be running the advisory committee that is going to be full of data users, figuring out how we help move the economy forward by releasing our data,” Kruger said.

Commerce has also been hosting open data roundtables. The most recent one was co-hosted by Commerce, New York University’s GovLab and the White House Office of Science and Technology. The roundtable brought together 21 companies from various sectors and helped inform a discussion on how Commerce can better use data.

3. Showing the Power of Open Data

The final efforts under way at Commerce are to continue to build a data-driven culture. “We want to make open data not just a compliance issue, where we are just checking the boxes, but instead part of our culture and part of who we are and what we do,” Kruger said. Commerce has created a model for data-driven innovations.


To learn more about open data and case studies from data.gov and the Department of Commerce, be sure to check out GovLoop’s latest guide, Capitalizing on the Open Data Revolution.



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