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Commerce chief details open data initiatives

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker discussed the importance of data and open data policies — both to the economy and public safety — at the Environmental Systems Research Institute’s User Conference on Monday at the San Diego Convention Center.

Pritzker said the Department of Commerce is the nation’s go-to data agency, and announced several important steps the agency is taking to ensure it harnesses the power of this information.

“We are a startup as ‘America’s Data Agency,’ but the Department of Commerce has the tools necessary to develop, test, and grow the next phase of the open data revolution,” Pritzker said. “To demonstrate our firm commitment to this task, we are announcing today that we will hire the department’s first-ever Chief Data Officer.”

Additionally, the department’s International Trade Administration launched its “Developer Portal” toolkit to simplify the process of finding and using trade and investment data, and is creating a data advisory council of private sector leaders to serve as advisers to the government.

Pritzker also said the department will hold an American Community Survey Wednesday in San Diego, to learn how American Community Survey data is used and how the department can better prioritize its funding.

On the economic importance of open data, Pritzker cited a McKinsey study that found open data in seven sectors would unlock more than $3 trillion to the global economy, and $1 trillion to the United States alone, by creating products and improving health care, job training and education, for example.

“Today, our department is releasing a report on the value of federal government statistical programs, driving home a similar message,” Pritzker said.

“Our data inform decisions that help make government smarter, make businesses more competitive, make citizens better informed about their own communities — with the potential to guide up to $3.3 trillion in investments in the United States each year.” Decennial Census and American Community Survey data alone guide $400 billion in federal spending annually.”

Pritzker emphasized the added value doesn’t come with a large price tag. The federal government’s cost amounts to 3 cents per person per day to collect and disseminate statistical data.

In addition to the economic benefits of more widespread use of data, Pritzker said its public safety uses are also important.

“We saw the life-saving power of data last Nov. 17 in Washington, Ill., as an F4 tornado was bearing down on the area,” she said. “It was a Sunday, and hundreds of residents were sitting in church.

"Their cellphones started receiving alerts and text messages about the approaching storm from the National Weather Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a part of the Commerce Department.

“Church staff led everyone to storm shelters; they waited as they heard the tornado roll by. Once the worst was over, all of the people in those churches had survived. Many of their homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, but they were safe. Tragically, only one person died, which, of course, is one too many.”

Thanks to data gathering and dissemination, average tornado warning times have tripled from five minutes 25 years ago, and accuracy has nearly doubled, she said.

“Put simply, today there are more people alive in Washington and elsewhere because we analyze data quickly and we get it out to the people who need it,” Pritzker said.

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