Open Gov

Census in the spotlight at open source summit

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A recent 'National Day of Hacking' helped the Census Bureau create online applications, says the applications manager for Census.gov. (Stock photo)

The Census Bureau is using open source communities to further its digital development goals, and finding the approach rewarding, said Alec Permison, applications manager for Census.gov.

This year, the agency held a "National Day of Hacking," during which more than 11,000 developers across the country used Census data to create new online applications that would help solve civic and social problems in local communities, he said, speaking at the third annual Open Source Summit, held at the NYU Washington, D.C., building.

And in 2012, he said, Census released an app called "America's Economy," which provides real-time statistics tracking key economic indicators. The app's release was part of the agency's Digital Transformation Project, an effort to comply with the governmentwide Digital Government Strategy and provide the public and government workers with access to information "anywhere, anytime, on any device."

However, he cautioned the audience, success in experimentation can sometimes be hard to gauge. "We haven't imagined what all the possibilities are," he said. "That's really another thing that we're looking for, that innovation. We couldn't tell you what it is, but we'll know it when we see it."

Permison had his own questions for the panel as well, asking what the payoff was for agencies in general to participate in open source communities.

At the Defense Department, said Vicki Allums, DOD's associate general counsel for intellectual property, "We saw the value in [participating in the community] because that's where we're going as an agency…especially in terms of gaining efficiency and cost cutting."

Jim Jagielski, president and director of the Apache Software Foundation, suggested that open source participation might be inherently central to Census' mission. "[All this census data] is being collected on all of our behalves, so we want to be able to exercise it and view it," he said. "I think being able to create an open source project, which makes it easier for the citizens to have access to that data, makes it much more personal. Then the census is no longer this external entity that divvies out information to us as it sees fit. It creates a sense of ownership of that data."

Permison concurred, and said he hoped developers would become more aware of the data being provided.

"Census is not about building apps, we're almost more of a data platform," he said. "And that's really our future, that we can collect, analyze and disseminate the data, and other people can build all the cool apps that work off of it."

About the Author

Natalie Lauri is an editorial fellow at FCW. Connect with her on Twitter: @Nat_Lauri.

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