Commerce feeds swelling interest for data, tools
- By Zach Noble
- Jul 11, 2016
Besides creating, managing, storing and disseminating data in areas as diverse as the weather, patents and household income, the Commerce Department has been busy building application programming interfaces to improve the usability of its agencies' data and conducting outreach to make potential users aware of how much data is available.
"It is absolutely critical that you use what we're doing," said Justin Antonipillai, counselor to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
To help employees take advantage of the agency’s data information, the Commerce Data Academy offers training opportunities for the department's 50,000 staff members. Antonipillai said the training has drawn unprecedented interest when he spoke at a recent lunch with the National Economists Club.
"In the government, you often offer training, and five, 10 people sign up," he quipped. "[But] 3,500 people signed up for our first training sessions on data science. It was incredible."
Post-training, Commerce employees apprentice with the Commerce Data Service and then bring their new data skills back to their agencies.
As a result of the training push, Commerce has moved away from publishing data in PDFs -- "a more modern version of a book," Antonipillai said -- and instead publishes a data library in R, a programming language popular with statisticians.
The open-source library should debut at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) in the next few weeks, he added.
"Rather than pulling up individual datasets and scanning for the particular data you want, you will be able to use this R library to pull up and visualize the data immediately," he told the assembled economists. "I think it has the potential to really make your job easier."
BEA Director Brian Moyer said his office is also exploring passive data collection, such as automatically collecting ZIP code data from credit card transactions, and combining big datasets with traditional survey data to gain deeper insights.
But all the work hinges on "real data geeks" taking advantage of it, Antonipillai said.
He acknowledged that the "fragile efforts" at Commerce will, like the rest of government, be shaken when the presidential transition takes place next year and said user demand is the key to ensuring that Commerce's data push doesn't falter.
This article was first posted on FCW, a sister site to GCN.
Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.