Commerce: Tell Us What You Want From Our Data


Crowdsourcing is a key part of Commerce's open data efforts.

The Commerce Department is the largest producer of open data in the federal government. Your weather forecasts are brought you to by the good folks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Census Bureau’s data can paint an almost block-by-block picture of the American populace.

But under the leadership of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, the agency isn’t content with just dropping massive data sets into the abyss of the Internet.

The agency, which is composed of 12 bureaus, is “embracing crowdsourcing” on a small scale to improve the quality of the data it releases to the public, Steve Cooper, the agency’s chief information officer, said at a tech event Wednesday hosted by FCW.

“The data sets we release today are based on what we believe the requirements need to be to deliver our mission,” Cooper said, adding, “People who consume the data are the missing part of the equation.”

Whether you call them customers or consumers, Commerce wants their input. Given the wide range of data Commerce and its bureaus collect -- census data, economic information, weather and technical data, among others -- it makes good sense to determine if data could potentially be commingled or delivered differently.

“If you start marinating that stuff together, we agree, we can probably provide some powerful raw data that could be used in all kinds of ways we haven’t thought of,” Cooper said. “This isn’t what we are actually doing today, not because it is incorrect, but because it hasn’t been part of our mission. But we want to be proactive and start to move ahead.”

Cooper has made a career of executing challenging IT transformations.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he became the newly created Department of Homeland Security’s first CIO. Later, he served as senior vice president and CIO of the American Red Cross, organizing a national call center that proved instrumental in providing emergency assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims.

Cooper has been knee-deep in transforming the Commerce Department’s IT approach since he took the tech helm eight months ago.

Cooper said four “domains” are important to technology success: people, process, technology and governance. Of those, the latter is the most critical, he said.

“Without governance, you might be win the battle, but you will lose the war,” he said.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross’ most intense disaster response effort put the aid agency in contact with about 156,000 people. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 4 million people required some sort of assistance, Cooper said, far more than the Red Cross could ever hope to handle using the same general method it’d used for the previous 125 years.

Faced with a legion of challenges, including how to verify the identities of thousands of displaced victims who had “nothing more than the clothes on their backs,” Cooper led a rapid tech-based transformation at the Red Cross.

“This was kind of a neat thing that came out of necessity,” Cooper said. “It was a positive outcome born out of transformation leveraging technology.”

Not all organizations will have a Katrina-like moment to embrace such a massive transformation, nor would they necessarily want one.

A better bet, Cooper said, is starting small with operational pilots.

The “S3” approach -- S3 standing for a "small series of successes" -- helps achieve buy-in from stakeholders across an organization. This is particularly useful in large organizations where larger technology undertakings cost big money and face big pressure to succeed. It also mirrors the agile methodology that new digital agencies like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service employ.

(Image via HerrBullermann/