How the U.S. Government Plans to Lift the Economy With Big Data

November 11, 2015, 6:40 PM UTC
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The federal government collects huge amounts of information like census data and patents that businesses could use if they knew how. But because of the government’s technical limitations, companies have trouble accessing the information and making sense of it.

To fix that, the Commerce Department introduced a new initiative this week designed to make more information sharable and accessible to companies. Dubbed the Commerce Data Service, the new program will eventually have a staff of two dozen software engineers and data scientists in the Bay Area whose job will be to update the government databases and create data crunching services on top of them.

The program will be funded by the Commerce Department’s 12 bureaus, including the Census Bureau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the International Trade Administration. The bureaus have pledged $3 million to $4 million in the first year, and will continue to fund the program in the future if they are happy with the results, said Ian Kalin, the Commerce Department’s chief data officer.

Ultimately, the Commerce Department hopes that the updated technology will help companies make better business decisions that will lead to job growth and a stronger U.S. economy. One of the program’s initiatives will be to create a service for crunching international trade data that small-to-medium sized businesses can use, said Kalin.

Small businesses and manufactures often lack the resources to sift through trade data that could help them figure out how to better export their products. For example, a small wind turbine maker probably doesn’t have the data science staff to figure out that “Morocco is looking for wind turbines,” said Kalin.

Another initiative is to create a service that sifts through oceanic data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The hope is that shipping companies will use it to better plan their ocean routes, said Kalin.

The Commerce Department team won’t be alone in trying to improve government technology. Representatives from big technology companies like Amazon (AMZN), Palantir, and Google (GOOG) will serve as advisers.

However, those technology companies won’t invest in the initiative, Kalin said. Although those companies could benefit financially from improved access to federal data, Kalin insists they are helping out because they just want government technology to be better than it currently is.

“It is a more of a citizen’s expectation,” he said about their motivation.

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