Census Project Matches Your Agency's Data with Civic Innovators


Through The Opportunity Project, the bureau is connecting data-laden federal agencies with private-sector innovators who can use that data to solve real problems.

Federal agencies have lots of data which, if used right, could often be of great benefit to the citizens those agencies were created to serve. But figuring out exactly how to put that data to good use is no small task.

For agencies with limited resources (read: all agencies), it can be difficult to find the time, expertise and budget to start new data programs. But the government’s biggest data collector, the Census Bureau, has a way to help.

The bureau is preparing to accept submissions for the latest cohort in The Opportunity Project, or TOP, a free program that looks to connect federal agencies with lots of open data to private sector partners that can help them develop applications to solve real-world problems.

The program launched in March 2016 and since has had two a year, ranging in size from five projects to a dozen. Over the last three years, TOP worked on 27 projects across 13 federal agencies, creating some 75 digital tools, according to TOP Director Drew Zachary, who also serves as co-director of the Census Open Innovation Labs. The 2018 cohort is expected to launch 25 new apps in February 2019, she added.

“We talk about three goals of The Opportunity Project … people, data and collaboration. The people goal is really the ultimate point: actually solve problems for the public,” Zachary told Nextgov in an interview. “Whether that’s helping people to find housing near their schools or find jobs or understand where their tax dollars are going by connecting federal spending and performance data—anything like that. We want to solve a problem for people.”

That is the key aspect of the program, Zachary said: Projects must target a public need and the resulting apps must be designed for public use. The project is not meant to help agencies work on internal data projects that do not directly touch the citizen.

“We aren’t really set up to solve problems for federal agencies. We focus on solving problems and creating data products that are used by members of the public,” Zachary explained. When an agency comes to the table with a great dataset or difficult problem, TOP managers work to get them in touch with tech companies, universities and non-profits that can help.

“We try to always start from a felt need,” she said. “A real need that people and communities are facing so that we’re not just creating things for the sake of creating digital tools that don’t really have a user base. We start from that real problem—the real human problem—then we bring the data to the table.”

Zachary offered as an example a 2018 sprint to assist in fighting the opioid crisis.

“That really started from the problem,” she said. “It started with industry interest in saying, ‘We know this is a really big problem and we have developers and engineers who really want to contribute, is that something we could do through The Opportunity Project?’ And, the answer was yes.”

“It creates an opportunity for us to say, ‘What data sets do we currently have that are open that really could be put to work to solve that problem?’”

While many projects start with the problem, some begin with the data. The Census Bureau itself has troves of data—the collection of which is its main mission. For example, several teams have used figures from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics, or LEHD (pronounced “load”), data set to build apps that help people find affordable housing near good jobs—or vice versa.

“When we get it to developers through The Opportunity Project, they just come up with ideas—and this is really the heart of the process—that we never would have on our own,” Zachary said.

She noted the return on investment built into this setup, as all agencies need to offer is their data and their time.

Beyond saving money on contracting dollars, the TOP framework has other inherent benefits, as well.

“Companies can only build what you tell them to build in a contract,” Zachary pointed out. “So, you’re not really getting the creativity of the tech industry. What our process allows agencies to do is say, ‘Here’s the problem, you tell us what you think the solution should be and then you build that.’”

For companies, the program gives them an opportunity to work directly with federal agencies—without having to go through the arduous contracting process—and they get to keep all the intellectual property they develop during the process.

And there’s one more hidden benefit for agencies, as well: a greater inclination toward innovating using open data.

“We see a learning curve over and over again, where an agency will at first be skeptical but then will see what the process is. As soon as they see the outcomes, they really turn around,” Zachary said. “And then they’re not just interested in The Opportunity Project but get interested in open innovation in general.”

Prospective projects for the next cohort will be pitching TOP officials during the next demo day, scheduled for Feb. 7. Once those pitches are in for review, Zachary expects the next set of sprints to begin in April or May.