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Can Open Data Create More Opportunities for Americans? A New White House Effort Hopes So.

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If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.

Or in this case, a website powered by open data that aims to give Americans opportunities while also making neighborhoods thrive. That is the premise of the newly launched Opportunity Project, which builds on the White House’s pledge to unleash government information to improve economic mobility and empower better decision-making.

“What the Opportunity Project aims to do is connect community organizers, business leaders and leadership at the city level around a common set of tools so that they can understand where to invest and how to impact certain parts of the community,” Census Bureau Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Meisel told Nextgov at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas this week.

Powered by open federal and local data sets, the Opportunity Project provides access to resources around employment, housing, schools and other neighborhood amenities. 

For example, online real estate websites Zillow and RedFin were brought in to develop new features in their currently released products that show "opportunity zones" in the city. For a prospective homebuyer, “an Opportunity Score will allow me to figure out where the jobs are in relation to where I want to buy a house,” Meisel said.

However, the word “opportunity” here is used in a broad sense, Meisel said, and doesn't just include where to invest to create upward mobility but to give people in underserved areas resources to, say, make decisions to save on their commute times.

The project also includes data from the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau; open data from the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce and Agriculture; and local data sets from eight cities on community features such as playgrounds, grocery stores and health clinics.

Participating cities that have provided specific data sets around “opportunity scenarios” include Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and a host of others. In addition to Zillow and RedFin, organizations such as GreatSchools, PolicyLink and Streetwyze are also involved.

The project has been a collaboration between the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the Census Bureau, which also created a new Opportunity Module for CitySDK -- a service development kit for cities and developers that aims to standardize the development of application programming interfaces.

Both Opportunity.Census.gov and the CitySDK are open source and available on GitHub, Meisel said.

“It’s a live engagement with different stakeholders than can help use data and enable more opportunities for the cities,” he added.

So far, there have been over 300 members sharing information on the Slack channel, and Meisel called the response “pretty overwhelming.”

“We’ve had cities on a Saturday night who are uploading data to our GitHub account to join,” he said. “It’s had a really good initial response.”

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