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Driving Commerce Data onto New Platforms…

During the holiday season, more of us spend more time trying to think about how we gave back this year and commit to give back in the next year. Here at Commerce, we have information that can help you target that giving, and to make other decisions, and we have been working hard to bring you more ways you can get that information.

For example, Alexa, is the internal “personality” behind the Amazon Echo hands-free speaker that you control with your voice. And now, through a joint effort between the Commerce Data Service, the Census Bureau, Amazon Web Services, and developers who volunteered their expertise, a source of Echo’s “knowledge” is the Census Bureau’s API. And now, through Alexa, you can get direct access to its annual American Community Survey results—a wealth of data about who we are, where we live, how we live, what we do and what we earn.

Counselor Justin Antonipillai, Economics & Statistics Administration (left) and Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Meisel, U.S. Census Bureau

Counselor Justin Antonipillai, Economics & Statistics Administration (left) and Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Meisel, U.S. Census Bureau

Here I want to call out Amazon Web Services for hosting a team from Census—led by Jeff Meisel—and the Commerce Data Service, along with 70 volunteer developers in Seattle, for the Amazon Alexa Open Data Skills Challenge. Software developers and civic hackers had the chance to build innovative solutions that connect open data with voice recognition. The goal was to bring Census data to the Alexa voice platform to make the device even more helpful—and the data easier to obtain.

Russell Lyons, a member of the Census team that participated in the Alexa challenge, created a Census Data Skill for the device that makes the most common Census website search results now accessible through voice recognition.

Now, for example, if you ask Alexa:

  • “What is the population of Maryland?” or
  • “What is the state’s medium income?” or
  • “What is the poverty rate?”

Right now with the Census Data skill enabled, the answer you get will be driven off of data directly from the Commerce Department.

The developers at the Alexa Open Data Skills Challenge did not stop there:

One Alexa challenge team developed a tool they dubbed “Gripe,” which used Census data including commute times, the number of unmarried people by gender, and data from NOAA allowing users to “gripe” about their drive to work, their love life or the weather, and Alexa would suggest where the user might like to live instead. Another team used USPTO data to ask Alexa if their idea for a new product or service has already been patented.

Census Bureau Chief Data Officer Zach Whitman speaks to participants on the first day of the Alexa Open Data Skills Challenge

Census Bureau Chief Data Officer Zach Whitman speaks to participants on the first day of the Alexa Open Data Skills Challenge

The Census-Alexa challenge goes to a key goal in democratizing public data: To give people access to the data in whichever medium they prefer. While large consulting firms and data experts may be comfortable getting data via an API, a larger audience simply wants to access our data seamlessly via their consumer devices in both text and voice searches.

The outpouring of help from the digital sector to harness public data for the public good brings to mind the old “Wesley Rule”: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

In that light, I’m grateful to everyone who answered the call to turn data into action: The developers who built apps to help people secure affordable housing, jobs and gender pay equality. The digital game-changers spurred by the White House Opportunity Project. The Presidential Innovation Fellows and amazing talents behind GSA’s 18F program, the US Digital Service, and the Commerce Data Service and the Commerce Data Advisory Council. And digital sector leaders and innovators like Amazon.

We’re deep in the “season of giving,” when we come together in a spirit of shared humanity, generosity and service to humankind. I am inspired completely dissolved by how many people have joined our mission, responded to our call to action, and put their talents and creative minds to work to harness public data to make our government, nation, and people’s lives better.

And try our new Alexa skill, driven straight off of Commerce data.

Justin

Justin Antonipillai—Counselor to Secretary Penny Pritzker, with the Delegated Duties of the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs

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