The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Mark Doms, Under Secretary of Economic Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce, in Washington, DC. Under Secretary Doms discussed the current efforts at the Commerce Department to increase the availability and timeliness of high-quality data, as well as promote data-driven innovation in the government and economy.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Daniel Castro: The Department of Commerce’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan laid out a number of objectives related to data. Can you highlight some of these objectives and talk about your approach so far?
Mark Doms: Commerce’s strategic data plan has three main parts. We’re close to a major announcement on the first objective, which I’ll discuss a little more in a moment, and we’re formulating our strategy on parts two and three, including holding listening sessions around the country with our customers.
Goal 1: Better data delivery. How can we better make available all the data we collect? Whether its Census data, weather data, trade data, patent and trademark data, etc., what are the right open source standards and architectures to best unlock our diverse datasets? How should we be inventorying and prioritizing them? I don’t want to give too much away, but Secretary Pritzker will be addressing our strategy directly on Monday at a speech she will be giving at the Esri Users Conference in San Diego, which I will also be attending.
Goal 2: Better data-driven government. What data or combination of datasets should we be using to better evaluate the effectiveness of our own programs and initiatives? What access do we need across different government agencies to optimize our operations?
Goal 3: Promoting the 21st century data economy. What data do our customers, the private sector and local, state, federal governments, need that we aren’t currently collecting? What are the skills needed to drive a data economy workforce, and how do we promote efforts for American students and workers to obtain them?
I will also note that while our focus at Commerce is on making more data available because of the positive benefits for our economy, government, and society, we hold protecting and safeguarding the public’s data as our first and foremost responsibility.
Castro: What are some interesting insights you’ve learned so far during your listening tour about how different groups are using Department of Commerce data?
Doms: We’ve heard several common themes. One is that U.S. government data has to be easier to find and use.
Another common theme is that businesses and governments want more localized, granular data; small geographic areas (metropolitan areas and neighborhoods, not state data which they already have), and they need it in a timelier fashion. As a result, we’re formulating a plan to better meet our customer’s needs, and we’ll be announcing that plan soon.
Castro: How is the Census Bureau changing its data collection practice, and what will be better under the new data collection scheme?
Doms: I like to say, producing bad data is easy, producing good, useful data is hard. Census has been in the business of producing good data since 1790. Counting the four million people living on American soil was probably our nation’s first big dataset. We’ve been at this a long time and we’re good at it.
With that said, we have to look at ways to reduce respondent burden on surveys. With the bombardment of emails and other surveys confronting Americans these days, it’s getting harder to get people to respond. So if a person or family has already provided a piece of information to the government in another way (such as how many kids a couple has), then what do we have to do to get that information from other government agencies instead of requesting the information AGAIN from the family?
There’s also a ton of money that can be saved through innovation in the Census. For instance, to classify a house as unoccupied, we currently have to send someone to knock on the door several times. But if we used administrative records, like Medicare and tax records, we could more easily ascertain whether anyone lived there. That innovation alone could save over a billion dollars by eliminating the need to send someone to personally, repeatedly, knock on those doors. That’s not chump change.
Castro: What are some of your key takeaways from the recent Open Data 500 Roundtable, and what are your next actions with regard to it?
Doms: The Open Data Roundtable was a great experience. For the first time, it brought together all the bureaus at Commerce at once, with many of their customers in the private sector. Sitting down with sophisticated data users forces an exchange of ideas, ideas that happen to align closely with our strategic data plan. For instance, we heard again and again that finding government data is challenging. We also heard from a wide variety of users about what data they need, how they take our data and combine it with other data to make new data products, and create new data businesses. Really exciting stuff and I look forward to participating in more of these events. We’re hosting a Data Jam with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Friday the 25th in Baltimore if you’d like to join and jam out.
Castro: The Department of Commerce has made a big push to get NOAA data out to more users. What was keeping it from releasing more data before, and what do you expect to change with the additional available information?
Doms: NOAA faces several challenges. One is the sheer volume of information that is produced by satellites, weather stations, buoys…20 terabytes a day. Mind boggling. But maybe 10 percent is currently available to the public. Another is how should that data be stored so that it can be more easily accessed. Given the data’s size, should that platform allow manipulation and analysis of the data, or should it more simply be a platform from which copies can be made?
What’s really exciting about the NOAA weather data is how the private sector is coming up with new data products and services all the time, services that target farmers, helping them plan for the season ahead using predictive modeling. This is really cool stuff.
As you may know, NOAA released a Request for Interest (RFI) this past spring, essentially testing whether the private sector had an interest in trying to unlock their data for them, given the government’s strained resources. The response, I’m told, was overwhelming. More than 50 companies replied with interest in assisting. I’m excited to see where it leads.
Photo credit: Kristine Brown, NYU GovLab