Usability project unlocks Commerce data

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Usability project unlocks Commerce data

The Commerce Department has tens of thousands of datasets, thanks in part to its data-rich agencies such as the Census Bureau, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although the information is highly sought after, it hasn’t always been easy to get or use. The Commerce Data Usability Project changed that.

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Launched in January, CDUP is a collection of online data tutorials that introduce a problem, explain how data solves it and provide step-by-step instructions on accessing data and making it actionable. That approach cuts the time it takes users to collect and process Commerce’s information from months to moments.

“Even though there’s this wealth of data, getting to it and using it is highly specialized,” said Tyrone Grandison, former deputy chief data officer at Commerce. “It’s not completely open to everybody.”

Many companies, some of which built multibillion-dollar industries using Commerce data, had to spend a fortune outsourcing the time-consuming work of collecting and sorting the data, for instance.

“It’s now a community initiative,” he said. “You have a groundswell of people who are using multiple different datasets from Commerce in different ways now wanting to share knowledge.”

The project started with four tutorials and now offers 12 on topics such as using NOAA’s severe-weather data for risk analysis, exploring American innovation via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s data and tapping data from Census’ American Community Survey to focus nonprofits’ resources.

The 10-month-old Commerce Data Service worked with internal agencies on the initial guides, but now the project is a public/private partnership with companies and academia. Esri, Microsoft and Columbia University have produced tutorials to show how they use Commerce data. The data analytics organization Earth Genome, for example, posted a tutorial on using open environmental data for business investment decisions.

By sharing not just open data but open knowledge, CDUP levels the development playing field.

"In my mind, there is a difference between data being open and data being usable," said Star Ying, a data scientist at Commerce. "People assume that by fulfilling the former they automatically fulfill the latter. By making federal data more usable, we increase both usage of that data and quality of the data insights derived."

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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