Advisory panel looks for ‘moonshot’ in Commerce data


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A Commerce Department panel wants the agency to take their data to the “next level.” (iStockphoto)

The Commerce Department has made a lot of effort in planting its flag as “America’s Data Agency” over the past year. Yet, the department knows it needs to keep innovating if the country is to realize the potential in the petabytes of data the agency produces and stores.

A number of top data and technology experts assembled for the inaugural Commerce Data Advisory Council Thursday, looking to further push how the department helps both the private sector and American public harness the power of Commerce Department data.

With Commerce leading the government’s push to deliver data to the masses, department leaders challenged the panel to help them construct ways they can move their efforts forward.

Ian Kalin, Commerce’s chief data officer, called for the panel to think of “moonshot ideas” that could accelerate the way business and people use the department’s data.

“There are a few tools inside the government that have a way of unifying people. One of the phrases you hear is a ‘moonshot,'” Kalin said. “Around the topic of data, what’s a data moonshot? What’s something you can challenge us with, or we can challenge you with, in this sector?”

To demonstrate what Commerce has already done with its data, a number of bureaus gave short demos on products or services they have built using various department data, including a developer portal built for the International Trade Administration, a marketing pilot being tested for the 2020 census and the recent collaboration between a number of private cloud providers and NOAA intended to open massive amounts of weather data to the general public.

While panelists found positive starting points in the demos, Thursday’s conversation focused on how to move the majority of Commerce data to the next level, giving both the private sector and the public the ability to manipulate data any way they deemed fit.

“If the government had a platform where we could go in and say ‘This particular metric is how you measure GDP,’ but I want to move a particular component, because that’s I how see GDP,” Vadim Kutskyy, PayPal’s Head of Data Strategy and Stewardship, said when suggesting how Commerce could make improvements. “It’s not how government sees GDP but how I, as a company, want to see it.”

Daniel Castro, the Director of the Center for Data Innovation, stressed the need for the government to develop these platforms that spur data innovation.

“I think the trend in the next few years is building these platforms for innovation,” Castro said. “Socrata did it for the business sector, that’s what people should be looking for in government. How are we creating the right tech platform, process platforms and people platforms to allow this innovation to occur?”

But Katy Borner, a professor of information sciences at Indiana University, said that data literacy must become a focal point if government data is to act as an innovation accelerator.

“Many people out there never get to touch a terabyte of data. They also don’t have visualization literacy,” Borner said. “Ultimately, I believe what we want to do is raise the information literacy of everyone. Not just a few companies, not just a few power users, but of everyone.”

Some panelists also focused on improvements inside the government, addressing the necessity of culture change when it comes to internal processes. Joy Bonaguro, chief data officer for the city and county of San Francisco, said the government needs to have “the flexibility to respond to how things shift.”

“Every government has this problem,” Bonaguro said. “What’s the culture to put in place and the people and process to make that be a virtuous, responsive cycle?”

Christopher DiBona, Google’s Director of Open Sources in Engineering, said the Commerce Department should follow a common line of thinking across government: find the organizations that are doing good work, and spread that process throughout other government agencies and branches.

“What ITA did that was remarkable [with their developer portal] was they figured out what their mission was and said ‘Let’s launch it,'” DiBona said. The Commerce Department, he said, should find out what ITA did and how they did it, if it can be replicated across other departments and then pass those lessons to other components within the executive branch.

Commerce recognizes the need to pass best practices throughout the government as fast as they can. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker told the panel prior to the meeting’s beginning the department understands the window is closing on the ability to make concrete data policy due to the upcoming presidential election.

“The political leadership probably has 20 months in front of us,” Pritzker said. “There is a lot we can get done, but we can’t boil the ocean. We cant do everything, but we can get a lot done in a very short period of time.”

Kim Stevenson, Intel’s chief information officer, believes that’s plenty of time for the government to further the way it harnesses the power of its data.

“If we were a movie, we’d be in the opening credits,” Stevenson said. “The next 20 months seems like the next chapter of the movie.”

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Commerce Department, data analytics, Departments, open data, Tech