The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a Commerce Department ‘SWAT team’ opening up government data

Launched in 2009, was one of the Obama administration's flagship efforts to produce a more open government. But though the site is full of raw data, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker suggests it's not nearly as useful as it could be. was supposed to hold heaps of data created by the federal government as it goes about its day-to-day business, boosting government transparency. And it's worked in some cases. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data stored on the site has given birth to scores of weather apps and countless meteorologists' careers, for example.

But in a visit to the D.C. start-up hub 1776 on Monday, Pritzker said that one of the surprises of becoming secretary of commerce last year was finding that the department didn't have all that much to show for the great heaps of data it had shoveled onto the site.

The team housed at the U.S. General Services Administration "called us up and said you haven't been contributing appropriately," Pritzker said. "And so we dumped our 39,000 data sets on" -- from lists of people banned from exporting products from the United States to statistics on shark death rates in the Florida commercial fishing industry.

But that is not enough, she said. "The point is just dumping data sets out there is not useful," said Pritzker. "What we need to do is to figure out a strategy."

Pritzker said the department is pulling together a "SWAT team" with help from U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith to determine "the most exciting" things they can do with the data stored on the site during what remains of the Obama administration's tenure.

"I think what's realistic for Commerce to do in the next two years," said Pritzker, is to attempt three or four "major pilots where we take some of our data sets and figure out: how do we make them public, how do we partner" with the private sector.

The goal of that scaled-back strategy would be to create "templates that then could be replicated throughout the government," said Pritzker, adding that such a move would "take our data capabilities to another level."