Commerce Wants Amazon's Alexa To Tap Into Its Data

David Limp, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices, pushes down an Echo Dot in San Francisco.

David Limp, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices, pushes down an Echo Dot in San Francisco. Jeff Chiu/AP

The Commerce Department hosted a hackathon with Amazon.

Alexa, what's the population of my neighborhood?

In addition to ordering items, playing music, or setting alarms through Amazon's Echo speaker, voice-command system Alexa may soon be able to answer this and other questions based on federal data sets.

Last week, the Commerce Department participated in a hackathon at Amazon's Seattle headquarters, part of an effort to incorporate its own data into the knowledge base Alexa scans when answering questions. Amazon's developers were asked to develop "skills"—discrete functions Alexa carries out based on voice-recognition technology—on top of that data.

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Commerce's goal is to get its information to consumers using "comfortable, familiar mediums," Justin Antonipillai, a counselor to Secretary Penny Pritzker, said in a statement.

"[P]ower users and large consulting firms are comfortable getting data via an API," but "a larger audience simply wants to access our data seamlessly via their consumer devices in both text and voice searches," he said.

New skills based on Commerce data might help consumers "[p]lan a crop harvest more effectively by understanding weather forecasts," or "[a]sk questions related to population, median income, and more," Antonipillai wrote in a blog post.

"You might be able to ask Alexa to tell you about the tide and marine conditions," Antonipillai told Nextgov later. "You could ask a question about where [you] live ... that could draw off demographic data and location data."

But before consumers can use Alexa to access that information, developers need to be aware these data sets exist, and build out the skill that can crawl those data sets.

"We want to engage with expert programmers and others who could look at our data sets and say, 'Hey, what is an interesting use case?'" Antonipillai said.

Commerce is exploring other ways to get the attention of developers who might think of new ways its information could be delivered to consumers, Antonipillai said.

"We need to be on more platforms," he said. "By engaging on really cutting-edge platforms like Alexa, it allows people to be using [Commerce] resources."

The department has also issued a public call for companies with business intelligence tools to create public and open versions of their software to run on top of commerce data, Antonipillai said.