Commerce Department ramps up data investments with new position

At a conference in San Diego last week, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced that the Commerce Department is creating a new internal position: chief data officer.

The new officer will help the department and the public make better use of the department’s data sets, potentially spurring economic growth, Pritzker said at the event.

The move makes the Commerce Department one of just a handful of federal agencies — including the Federal Reserve Board — with a chief data officer and reflects a growing emphasis on data, according to J.R. Reagan, a principal with Deloitte and Touche.

“They are taking cues from the commercial sector, which normally leads trends like this,” he said. “Especially in big organizations, they’ve started to get their hands around how valuable it can be if we reduce the silos [that keep data sets private] and bring some of those silos together.”

In comments prepared for the conference (organized by the geographical information system software company Esri, which uses Commerce Department data for its mapping products), Pritzker said the department hopes to “make its data easier to access, understand and use; and maximize the return of data investments for businesses, entrepreneurs, government, taxpayers and communities.”

The department also plans to create a data advisory council, made up of 15 representatives from the private sector who will guide the department on the best ways to use government data.

The department’s weather data, for instance, is used by the Weather Channel, AccuWeather and other companies and apps, Pritzker said. But only about 10 percent of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, housed within the Commerce Department, is publicly available.

Without someone to oversee their data strategy, each of the Commerce Department’s agencies has had its own system for data collection — often in different formats, which cannot easily be consolidated into one searchable database, the Commerce Department’s acting deputy secretary, Bruce Andrews, said in an interview.

Although businesses might gain valuable insights by combining a travel and tourism data set from the International Trade Administration with Census Bureau data, for instance, it would be difficult to do so today, Andrews said.

“The vision is you’ll end up with apps and other products that [use] those data sets. You have a lot of private industry that’s built off government data,” Andrews said.

The department is canvassing the public and private sectors for a candidate, he said. “What we want is somebody who’s got both proven leadership and management. . . . Somebody with good technical experience, but who will work across figuring out what are the technical barriers.”

This might include creating department-wide standards for data collection, so that data sets can be combined internally, but it might also include developing or soliciting new technology to help them do that, Andrews said.

The announcement comes as more federal departments and agencies are realizing how data can help further their mission, Reagan said. And last year, President Obama released the Open Data Policy, which urges federal agencies to make more of their data sets available to the public.

Although only a handful of federal agencies have chief data officers, the position is growing in popularity among state and local governments, Reagan said. He said he noticed the public sector beginning to employ chief data officers about a year ago.

“It’s a natural progression in terms of how chief financial officers and chief information officers came to be. They couldn’t have every department managing its own finances; they needed to have someone responsible for how that all comes together for the mission of the agencies. It’s the same thing around CIOs on technology projects,“ he said, adding, “data wasn’t as important before; now it’s ubiquitous.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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