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Event Recap: Creating Value from Government Data

by Travis Korte
Senator Mark Warner speaks at the event,

This week the Center for Data Innovation held a panel discussion on “Creating Value from Government Data: The Next Wave of Data-Driven Innovation” to discuss how government agencies and the private sector can work together to encourage data-driven innovation. The event featured a keynote address from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), followed by a panel discussion with Steven Adler, chief information strategist at IBM; Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation; Dr. Mark Doms, the under secretary of commerce for economic affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce ; Kathleen Philips, chief operating officer of Zillow; and Tom Schenk Jr., chief data officer of the City of Chicago.

Sen. Warner discussed the promise of data-driven business from the perspective of a former entrepreneur, stating that he considers data to be among the top five fields for business growth over the next five years. He mentioned that one area of particular interest to him was student debt, and he called for data-driven analysis evaluating the economic impacts of student debt both for students and policymakers. He urged government agencies to learn from the success of the recently ratified Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), a bill to standardize and publish federal spending data that the senator co-sponsored. He also called out other agencies, including the Department of Defense, for having poor financial reporting data standardization. The senator finished by stressing that his office was “open for business” around improving financial data quality.

Dr. Doms explained the role of the Commerce Department as a data provider, noting that the government alone has the incentive to create data sets such as the Census and the American Community Survey, but that the Commerce Department needs to collaborate with the private sector to ensure that that data is being put to use. He explained some use cases for the Department of Commerce’s data sets, including financial and economic forecasting as well as numerical weather prediction. Doms argued that government data collection is an excellent return on investment and plugged a new report from the Economics and Statistics Administration titled “Fostering Innovation, Creating Jobs, Driving Better Decisions: The Value of Government Data.”

Castro discussed the value of alternative data sources to augment government’s traditional survey-based data collection methods. He gave the example of HealthMap, a collaborative epidemiological mapping effort from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital that incorporates in social media data and news reports to track diseases, which detected the ongoing west African Ebola outbreak nine days before World Health Organization authorities became aware of it. Castro argued that alternative data sources such as those HealthMap uses can provide immediacy, redundancy, and better coverage when used in conjunction with official data sources.

Philips explained how reliant Zillow is on government information, including the granular economic information in the Commerce Department’s American Community Survey. She talked about some of the data products Zillow builds on top of government data, including tools to predict how much a given house will appreciate over time. She also stressed the importance of public-private partnerships around data.

Schenk talked about the City of Chicago’s relationship with data, including as a publisher of data, a user of information, and a home for a flourishing data science community. He discussed how public and private sector organizations are using data in Chicago, including an energy efficiency certification company that uses building permitting data to generate its leads. He also detailed the city’s own efforts to publish granular data on crime, water conditions, and other areas. Schenk said that from the outset of the city’s open data efforts in 2012, Chicago has had a two-pronged approach, with transparency on one hand and business development on the other. Schenk also talked about the growing public interest in open data, citing the growth of data journalism and Chicago’s own volunteer open data developer community.

Adler illustrated the power of open government data with a story about his own initiation into an open data hackathon in San Francisco in 2012. He discussed the different approaches various cities have had toward open data, including using it to empower the public and using it to improve internal government processes. He spoke about the universality of open data as a policy issue, recalling a meeting when two English parliamentarians from opposite ends of the political spectrum agreed enthusiastically about the need for open data.  He also predicted that open data would be of increasing importance in the developing world, citing the progress several African nations have made in publishing open data and warning that people will go hungry as long as the international community lacks good data on food supply and demand.

The panelists all pointed to a need for greater collaboration between the public and private sector around identifying what government data sets can be most useful for businesses and developing standards for data sharing and analysis. With the private sector’s expertise and the government’s unique ability to collect comprehensive data sets, open data promises to be a major boon for the economy.

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