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July 23, 2014

Commerce Department to Hire Data Czar

In an effort to make greater use of government data, the U.S. Commerce Department is hiring its first chief data officer and convening an industry panel to make agency data more accessible.

Several agencies within the Commerce Department like the National Weather Service produce and disseminate huge volumes of meteorological data that are used by private enterprises like the Weather Channel and AccuWeather.

“The Department of Commerce is working to unleash more of its data to strengthen the nation’s economic growth, make its data easier to access, understand, and use and maximize the return of data investments for businesses, entrepreneurs, government, taxpayers and communities,” Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said in announcing the new position.

The new data czar will oversee development of a big data platform that will pull together diverse datasets like those generated by the weather service and other agencies under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The Commerce Department also said the new data officer will oversee efforts to improve data collection and dissemination along with efforts to deliver open government data in structured formats.

The new position is part of a larger Obama administration big data effort to leverage open government data as a new engine of U.S. economic growth. The White House released an Open Data Policy last year that encourages federal agencies to make more data publicly available.

Weather, climate and mapping information collected by NOAA, NASA and other science agencies are frequently cited as key datasets that the private sector can use for strategic planning and investments. However, some estimates calculate that only about 10 percent of NOAA’s data is currently available to the public.

To further access to government data, Pritzker also announced that the Commerce Department would create a “data advisory council” made up of 15 private sector members that will make recommendations to the agency about how best to make government data available to the public.

Among the advisory groups’ tasks will be devising ways for federal agencies to collaborate with the private sector to develop new data applications and services. “The council’s primary focus will be on the accessibility and usability of Commerce data, as well as the transformation of the department’s supporting infrastructure and procedures for managing data,” the agency added.

The “data leaders” will serve two-year terms and meet quarterly, Pritzker said.

Datasets generated by agencies within the Commerce Department tend to be stored in separate databases in varying formats. A key role for the chief data officer will be eliminating these data “silos” so the agency’s databases are more searchable and accessible.

The result is likely to be department-wide standards for data collection, Bruce Andrews, acting deputy commerce secretary, told the Washington Post.

The Commerce Department, which among things promotes U.S. trade and, more recently, foreign investment in the U.S., estimates that its data could be leverage to steer up to $3.3 billion in investments each year.

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