Reflecting on today’s Commerce Data Advisory Committee meeting, I think about the “flywheel effect,” a term coined by Jim Collins, author of the landmark book, “Good to Great,” (about how good companies become great).
The flywheel effect says the toughest challenge is getting a giant wheel to begin turning. You have to keep pushing. And it takes many shoulders on the wheel. But at some point, the momentum kicks in, and the flywheel starts to turn on its own momentum. Then—boom—it takes off.
From his first day in office in January 2009, President Obama started the open-data flywheel turning, and Commerce Secretary Pritzker challenged “America’s Data Agency” to put our shoulders to the wheel. We’ve made great progress. We’ve picked up speed. Our new challenge is to keep the momentum going.
What I saw and heard at the CDAC today was not only exciting and inspiring, it gave me incredible confidence that the best is ahead.
Secretary Penny Pritzker’s keynote recognized our CDAC members for being indispensable partners in advancing the Commerce open-data efforts … and help make stronger data collection and dissemination part of the Department’s DNA—now and in years to come.
Secretary Pritzker also touched on how far the Department has come in a short time by launching the Commerce Data Service, the Commerce Data Academy, the Commerce Data Usability Project, and our challenge to the most talented in the digital world to mine our data and come up with innovative uses for it.
She also shared how much of our progress has been driven by CDAC’s recommendations, including, making data part of every Commerce bureau’s institutional muscle memory, making Commerce data more usable and accessible, to dramatically expand access to raw data.
We then were also treated to a series of “lightning presentations” on our work in innovating with Commerce data:
- Commerce Chief Data Scientist Jeff Chen demonstrated beaR, which is harnessing the statistical programming language “R” to make the mountains of economic data—jobs, income, trade and production, down to the zip code—produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis easier to download, sort, sift, compile and crunch.
- Jeff Chen then presented the “Search String Analysis” tool created with, and for, the US Patent and Trademark Office. It gives patent examiners a quick and sharper way to search whether the innovations they’re reviewing are new and patent-worthy—and handle the alphabet soup of new tech acronyms and terms.
- Stephen Devine from the US Economic Development Administration demonstrated the Grants Viewer project. It gives EDA managers the digital tools to get, query, download and visualize all grant recipients across the nation—who they are, where they are, and how they created jobs and opportunity.
- Karlheinz Skowrenk from the US Patent and Trade Office showed us the Expertise-Based Patent Matching system, which helps patent office managers navigate the tsunami of patent applications by assigning the right application to the right person with the right expertise and bandwidth. Karlheinz’ colleague, Thomas Beach later walked through the next patent-trademark data breakthroughs.
- Closing the lightening presentations, Ed Kearns from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed how the agency plans to disseminate the massive terabytes of data about the earth’s behavior from the new weather satellite that NOAA just launched through Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft.
In the true spirit of collaboration, synergy and open data community—together learning more than we could individually alone—CDAC members Katy Borner (U. Indiana), Vadim Kutsyy (PayPal), Karin Remington (Arjuna Solutions), CJ Moses (GE Software), William Gail (Global Weather Corp.) and Heather Joseph (SPARC) shared their insights and led discussions about the projects.
Katy also led a robust discussion about the Commerce Data Academy following a presentation by CDS’s Natassja Linzau and ESA’s Burton Reist.
Then danah boyd led an important and thought-provoking discussion about the open data movement, and the challenges it presents on the issue of equality. The entire group benefited from a discussion that challenged our assumptions on the open-data movement.
I had the privilege of sharing my thoughts about democratizing data and expanding data equality, including the number of companies that answered our call to the private sector to get out data out to those who are not accessing it directly.
The early respondents include Kaggle, which has committed to putting Commerce datasets in front of its global community of data scientists, developers and coders to address public issues (see my blog here).
Socrata is another—creating a tool that leverages its platform to drill into data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Health Insurance Estimates (SAHIE) on the proportion of Americans living with health insurance, down to the county level. Commerce Data Service’s Laura McGorman and Kevin Merritt from Socrata treated us to a live demo of how Socrata has taken a this data set from Census and transformed it into actionable insights that policymakers, advocates, and affordable insurance companies can use to improve services.
Socrata and Kaggle truly have taken our data and helped bring it to a much broader user group for the public good. I’ll have more to say about their project and some of the other companies that stepped up to our data challenge so far, including Wolfram, Ephesoft and Data.World, in future updates.
Wrapping up the CDAC meeting, we looked ahead with an open discussion with Secretary Pritzker and council members about the future of CDAC and the Commerce open data mission, keying off the Council’s recommendations for moving forward. These CDAC recommendations include: making the Commerce Data Service permanent… capturing data customer metrics (e.g., tracking people who grab our datasets)… exploring a “labs concept”—an ongoing open-data incubator… and, that CDAC should continue and grow into the coming year and beyond.
We have done a lot in this year, and the CDAC meeting confirmed to me, as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson said it, that we’re “present at the creation.” We are still in the early innings of the ballgame, but we have a terrific team and a strong foundation. As government and the private, nonprofit and charitable sectors begin to make demonstrable progress in harnessing public data, we can together launch a new era of data equality, opportunity and data-driven solutions to public needs.