What ‘America’s Data Agency’ Should Be Doing With Its Data


Lessons from an open data roundtable at the Commerce Department.

Much of the world’s best data comes from the U.S. government and much of the best data in government comes from the Commerce Department, which publishes weather information, demographic numbers, economic stats and scientific standards.

This is why Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker last summer declared her department “America’s data agency” and why a few days later New York University’s Governance Lab, known as GovLab, co-hosted an open data roundtable discussion with the White House and Commerce.

Event participants said Commerce could improve data quality -- specifically its completeness, validity and accuracy -- to make it “cleaner,” with less noise and inaccuracy within data sets, according to the GovLab report on the roundtable, which was released this week.

Attendees -- who hailed from the private and public sectors -- said the department could “publish data at a more granular geographic level (where possible), with easy-to-use geographic crosswalks,” the GovLab report said.

The report gave as an example the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, saying it should provide block-level data and address any privacy issues by masking individuals or inviting them to opt in.

Participants specifically asked the Patent and Trademark Office to improve location data for inventors and track what happens to patents after they are granted -- something PTO was already working on.

A suggestion to crowdsource information to identify businesses that were specifically set up to obfuscate business ownership was offered with a caveat:

“If not used well, however, crowdsourcing could add to the problem by adding more inaccurate company names to the mix,” the report said.

The GovLab report said it “serves as a catalyst and facilitator for the open data community, and the recommendations reflect the participants’ views.” It also listed suggestions in the areas of data discovery, storage, interoperability, sharing, findability and access.

For its part, Commerce is pledging to hire a chief data officer to oversee its programs "as quickly as possible," according to Sarah R. Horowitz, Commerce's deputy press secretary.

"We are in the process of hiring and expect an announcement in the coming weeks," she told Nextgov in an email. 

Last summer, the department listed multiple initiatives currently underway at its agencies:

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working to put all available data on one platform. The agency is also analyzing 70 responses to a National Weather Service June request to industry for suggestions on data that companies and the public are interested in having distributed.
  • The Census Bureau is able to link geocoded individual and business data, but is looking for ways to do so without violating privacy. The agency already provides application programing interface -- or API -- keys used by more than 5,000 developers.
  • The Bureau of Economic Analysis has this year introduced quarterly gross domestic product reports by industry, inflation-adjusted state personal income stats and consumer spending by state, which, like all BEA products, are on the agency website and will be available in XML, CSV and JSON formats.
  • The Patent Office is working to put patent data in a more centralized, easily searchable form.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on adding its data to the Commerce open data stream and “aims to develop data standards and technological infrastructure that will make parallel efforts at Commerce agencies more effective, coherent and intraoperative.”

The Commerce data roundtable will be a template for future open data discussions with other agencies, GovLab said.

“The Department of Commerce Roundtable has shown how a broad array of stakeholders can contribute to enhancing the open data ecosystem through input, dialogue and partnerships to help improve government data quality, storage and dissemination,” the report said.