The GovLab Roundtables: Open Dialogues on Open Data

Last Wednesday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and The GovLab co-hosted a unique event: An Open Data Roundtable that brought together more than 20 officials and staff from the U.S. Department of Commerce with two dozen companies and organizations that use Commerce data. The Department of Commerce is responsible for several of the largest public data collections in the federal government, including the work of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

All kinds of companies rely on this data, including businesses that work in weather prediction, geospatial mapping, finance, and many other areas. But despite the widespread use of Commerce data, there has been no organized way for data-users to meet and talk with government data-providers about ways to improve how their data is collected, published, and used. This event was a first step to developing that dialogue.

The result was an unusually candid, productive, and energetic discussion that went on through the day and throughout a two-hour reception afterwards. We received positive feedback from participants on all sides – government, private sector, and nonprofits – who said they found the day a unique opportunity to discuss key issues and want to continue the conversation. In the morning, after presentations from the Department of Commerce bureaus, we held breakout sessions for in-depth discussion and problem-solving. They focused on five critical areas: weather and climate data, geospatial and mapping data, economic and demographic data, technology and data management, and intellectual property. The afternoon breakout groups discussed cross-cutting issues that concern all Commerce bureaus, including data inventories, data interoperability, public-private partnerships, and channels for feedback from data users. We’re now synthesizing dozens of pages of notes from these sessions to extract the most important issues and proposed solutions for follow-up and action.

Leadership for Action on Open Data

This Roundtable is part of a broader effort to fulfill the U.S. Open Data Policy, which President Obama established in May 2013 through an Executive Order. The policy requires federal agencies to make most of their data available to the public in a timely way and in formats that are easy to analyze and use. In establishing the Open Data Policy, the President stressed the business value of government open data, saying that it “is going to help launch more start-ups. It’s going to help launch more businesses. . . . It’s going to help more entrepreneurs come up with products and services that we haven’t even imagined yet.”

The Department of Commerce made last week’s dialogue possible through the participation of all the staff who attended and the commitment of top leadership. Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Mark Doms directed the Department’s planning for the event and participated for the entire day. In the afternoon, Secretary Penny Pritzker joined the meeting and spoke about its importance to Commerce, and Acting Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrews spoke and took questions from the attendees. You can read Bruce Andrews’ blog post about the Roundtable here and Mark Doms’ blog post here. You can also go to the Open Data 500 website for more information on the Open Data Roundtable Series and the Department of Commerce Roundtable.

The GovLab’s Open Data 500 study – the first comprehensive study of companies that use open government data as a key business resource – has given us the knowledge, context, and connections to serve as an effective convener for Roundtables like this.  Our study, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation,  has mapped the linkages between federal agencies and the companies that use their data for the first time. Most agencies don’t know who is using their data, beyond the companies that are their largest customers, and most companies don’t have the federal contacts to request data in more useful forms. In our work with both government agencies and data-driven businesses, we discovered a communications gap that the GovLab could help to bridge. This Roundtable with the Department of Commerce – which provides data to more Open Data 500 companies than any other agency – has confirmed the need for public-private dialogue on open data, and shown that the format we’ve devised is a good beginning.

Next Steps in Putting Data to Work

Throughout the GovLab we are studying and developing new ways that technology, data, and collaborative platforms can help governments engage with citizens, companies, and the nonprofit sector.  A major priority is to increase the use of open data at the federal , state, and local levels.  This is a global objective that goes beyond the U.S.: The GovLab has just released a report, co-authored with the UK’s National Health Service, on the uses of open data to improve health and healthcare. We now plan a series of Open Data Roundtables as part of the GovLab’s mission:  to change how we govern in order to improve people’s lives.

U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai, who spoke at the Commerce Roundtable in the afternoon, stressed the importance of this kind of dialogue in realizing open data’s business potential. The White House also recognized our program of Open Data Roundtables in the U.S. Open Data Action Plan, released on May 9, exactly one year after the Open Data Policy was established. The Plan describes these Roundtables as helping to “support innovators and improve open data based on feedback.” The Plan also notes that “Specific, actionable feedback from these sessions [the Roundtables] and others has the potential to improve descriptions, formats, and accessibility of government data.”

At the GovLab, we are now working with the Departments of Agriculture, Labor, Transportation, and Treasury to plan additional Open Data Roundtables, with the financial help of Series Sponsors Amazon Web Services and PricewaterhouseCoopers. We’re working closely with the Department of Commerce on next steps as well.  Our goals are to facilitate a growing public-private dialogue around open data; to publish the results of these meetings; to help  improve the open data ecosystem; and ultimately to help change how government agencies work with the organizations that use their data. We invite you to send us your ideas, comments, and offers to participate at

–   Joel Gurin, Senior Advisor at the GovLab and Project Director, Open Data 500

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