Education Department Testing Tool to Make Data Collection Requests Easier 

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The pilot tool will undergo testing using real information requests at the Education Department and other statistical agencies but will later be available to other agencies.

The Education Department will test a new tool to simplify the process for completing information collection reviews this month, an official said during a webinar hosted by the Data Coalition Wednesday. 

The technology creates a new interface that automates information collection reviews and meets requirements of Action 17 of the 2020 Federal Data Strategy. James “Lynn” Woodworth, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said the tool will be tested for the first time this month—and will eventually be available governmentwide. 

“We’re moving along and this is going to be coming to fruition hopefully very soon, where we can get the system on there and really greatly reduce the amount of duplication and the work for gathering this information,” Woodworth said during the webinar.

Woodworth added the automation technology will be tested at a few other statistical agencies, too. The project started as a tool NCES was developing for its own use several years ago. When information about it was shared with other agencies, NCES began working with the Office of Management and Budget to create a tool that can be used across the federal government, he said. 

All agencies must go through the ICR process in order to collect information from the public in accordance with the Federal Data Strategy. A significant portion of agencies’ data inventories comes out of information collection reviews, according to the Action 17 mandate. 

The goal is to create a functional tool by the end of the calendar year, Woodworth told Nextgov. NCES and the other agencies plan to use real submissions in the tests.

The tool will streamline the ICR process by eliminating redundancies, thereby saving time, Woodworth said. It uses an interface template structure to populate information fields in the ICR while at the same time using that information to also create associated metadata files and data inventory information. 

“It's basically a tool that's going to create a database of information, and then build these other outputs, based on those pieces within the database,” Woodworth said. 

Test results and feedback are due December 31, according to the Action 17 mandate. 

Woodworth and two other Education Department officials also spoke at the Data Coalition webinar about other efforts to promote coordination on data issues across the federal government. One of the areas covered was the concept of the National Secure Data Service, another idea rooted in the Evidence Act.

Matt Soldner, the Education Department’s chief evaluation officer and commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation, said the problem with a centralized data service is not know-how; it’s creating the right regulatory and statutory environment to make such a service useful while still maintaining privacy. Soldner also serves on the federal Advisory Committee on Data for Evidence Building, established by the Evidence Act to consider the issue of a national data service.

“Almost never does someone tell me: ‘We don’t know how to link these data,’” Soldner said. “What I do hear a lot is: ‘We can’t link these data.’”

Soldner said developing a national secure data service doesn’t make sense until there is a method for linking data that preserves privacy without diminishing the actual usefulness of that linked data. 

“I don’t want to build a whiz-bang infrastructure that doesn’t yield tangible benefits,” Soldner said. He added that developing a top-notch data service must progress hand in hand with building capacity in the federal workforce to actually use that evidence. 

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