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April 9, 2014

Survey Finds Open Data Boosting U.S. Economy

George Leopold

Preliminary results of an open data survey indicate that “free” government data is increasingly being used by the private sector to generate substantial economic gains in sectors like education, health care and transportation.

The growing economic impact of open data is being probe by public and private groups seeking to unlock the value of mountains of data generated by government agencies. A survey dubbed the Open Data 500 found that the data and technology, financial and investment along with the business and legal services sectors are so far making the greatest use of federal data paid for by taxpayers.

The survey also found that data generated by the U.S. Commerce Department is being used by more than 120 companies. That total was well ahead of the No. 2 agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.

A graph from Open Data 500 shows data consumption by source and destination

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Energy Department were also among the leading open data providers.

Among the Commerce agencies generating data widely used by industry is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service. U.S. weather data is widely used by the private sector that includes online and cable weather services like the Weather Channel and private outfits that charge customers for tailored weather forecasts.

In another example, government climate data collected by the National Weather Service, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, also is being used by several software startups developing services designed to aid farmers. Along with crop management, the data is used to determine what types of weather-based crop insurance farmers may need as weather patterns vary.

The Open Data 500 survey is part of a larger public-private initiative to leverage open government data to spur economic development.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has taken the lead on federal open data efforts, estimates that open data generates as much as $3 trillion annually in additional economic value.

The Obama administration’s Open Data Initiatives “have helped unlock troves of valuable data— that taxpayers have already paid for—and is making these resources more open and accessible to innovators and the public,” said Erie Meyer, a senior advisor at OSTP.

Meyer and other open data advocates spoke this week at a forum on the economic impact of open data sponsored by the Center for Data Innovation. Along with weather and climate data, speakers cited mapping data, legal filings, public health statistics and economic data as examples of data sets that the private sector is using to develop new products and services.

A growing number of technology companies around the Capital Beltway have launched big data initiatives based on federal statistics to provide clients with forecasting and other services.

For example, Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) is massaging U.S. climate modeling data used by clients to make future investment bets. Sharon Hays, a former OSTP official and a CSC vice president, told a recent climate conference that very large data sets are needed to make risky investment decisions, adding that the growing emphasis on big data is about turning the roughly 15 petabytes of U.S. government climate data into “actionable information.”

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