Realizing the Potential of Open Government Data: The GovLab’s Commerce Roundtable Report

On June 18, The GovLab and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) co-hosted a new kind of data event, together with the U.S. Department of Commerce. We planned and convened an Open Data Roundtable: a day designed to bring together the staff and officials that provide Commerce data with the companies and organizations that use it. The federal government has done a number of important outreach activities – data jams, hackathons, and Datapaloozas – that present open government data to the public and invite entrepreneurs of all kinds to use it. This Roundtable was a different kind of gathering – an experiment designed to create more of a two-way dialogue between data providers and data users for the first time.

The Roundtable produced a number of specific recommendations for the Department of Commerce and began to outline broader issues for the federal data “ecosystem” as a whole. Today The GovLab published a report summarizing key findings and recommendations identified during the Roundtable, as well as steps taken by the Department since the event.

Read the report here

The recommendations in the report reflect the Roundtable’s participants’ suggestions as we have recorded and synthesized them. The Department of Commerce issued a statement on our report today as well: Putting Government Data to Work: A New Report From The GovLab Outlines Private Sector Recommendations for Improving Commerce Department Data Management.

The event had an immediate impact. Following the Open Data Roundtable, on July 14, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced that the Department will hire its first Chief Data Officer and establish a Data Advisory Council to represent the Department’s data “customers.” While many factors went into these decisions, the Secretary described them as changes that were responsive to the concerns and recommendations raised at the Roundtable. “The input we received from companies was invaluable and confirmed the need to make key changes in how we manage our data to maximize its value,” she said. “We look forward to continued work with The GovLab and the companies and organizations they have brought to the table.”

In a Foreword to today’s report, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews stated: “We are ready to utilize our data to strengthen America’s future, but we cannot do it alone. Like any startup, we need help and inspiration from partners like The GovLab,” he said. “We look forward to using the findings and recommendations from this report to make open data a centerpiece of our dynamic economy.”

As part of our commitment to openness and transparency, The GovLab is releasing this report as a public document with the hope that it will encourage further dialogue. In addition, we hope that this report will serve as a briefing paper for the incoming Chief Data Officer and Data Advisory Council and may provide guidance to the Department of Commerce’s data professionals, data experts in other government offices, data users of all kinds, and interested members of the media and the public.

The Open Data Roundtables build on The GovLab’s Open Data 500, a study of companies that use open government data as a key business resource in areas as diverse as agriculture, finance, energy, education, and healthcare. The Open Data 500, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is now the basis for similar studies in Mexico and other countries to come. The Department of Commerce provides data to more companies than any other federal agency in the Open Data 500 study, and companies that use Commerce data were invited to the Roundtable. Today’s Department of Commerce statement, cited the Open Data 500 study as an analysis of “data that is valuable to industry and that provides greater economic opportunity for millions of Americans.”

The next steps, both for Commerce and for other government agencies, will be to do more Roundtables and other initiatives to help realize the potential of open government data. The diagram below shows the seven major areas for improvement that our study identified, with the concept of the “data user as customer” at the center of all of them.


To make their data as useful as possible, government agencies can:

  • Make it easier to discover and find data – for example, by publishing full inventories of the data that an agency has available.
  • Improve access to data by making it easier to download and by providing data in different formats for different users’ needs.
  • Improve data quality by making the data more complete, valid, and accurate.
  • Collect data more frequently and from more sources, and share the data widely through both government programs and public-private partnerships.
  • Make data interoperable – that is, make it easier to combine and compare data from one government agency with data from another.
  • Use new strategies to store and disseminate data, including public-private partnerships, to make it more widely available.
  • Treat data users as customers by engaging with them and getting their input and feedback on a regular basis.

For our part, we at The GovLab were honored to work with the White House and the Department of Commerce to convene this first Roundtable, and look forward to similar collaborations in the future. The Department of Commerce’s commitment to engaging with its “data customers” opens up great opportunities for public-private collaboration. We’ve now followed the same model for a Roundtable with the USDA, held on August 1, and are in discussions with a dozen other federal entities to plan similar Roundtables in late 2014 and in 2015. We look forward to facilitating that work with the Department of Commerce and other government agencies in the months ahead.

–  Joel Gurin, senior advisor at The GovLab and project director, Open Data 500


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