Technical reports agency launches data-focused rebrand

An agency chartered to warehouse technical information wants another chance as a data hub for the Information Age.

Shutterstock image: beacon of data.

A small, obscure agency responsible for releasing government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business-related documents is taking its first steps toward reinvention in the face of congressional scrutiny.

The Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service released a request for proposals for a new joint venture partnership aimed at helping the agency improve access, analysis and use of the federal data it amasses.

Officials also announced a new director -- Avi Bender, formerly the CTO at the Census Bureau.

Since the 1960s, NTIS has stored a wide variety of government reports with the goal of maintaining all the reports produced by the federal government in a central location and making them available for sale. However, the internet has largely eliminated that function, and most reports are readily available from the agencies that produce them.

That change has put the agency squarely in the crosshairs of lawmakers. Two summers ago, a subcommittee of the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee grilled NTIS' former director on whether the agency was a redundant repository for government reports and a middleman for agencies seeking to avoid complicated acquisition rules for IT services.

In July 2015, NTIS announced that it would become a hub of the government's open-data policy. It planned to connect public- and private-sector data initiatives, work with the private sector to come up with new products based on government data and support the delivery of data to end users.

Bender's appointment and the RFP mark the beginning of that new focus, according to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

"We are excited about this new direction for NTIS," she said June 20 in a joint statement with Bender. "Finding innovative ways to utilize the federal government's expansive data resources will provide great opportunities for public-/private-sector collaboration."

"Data is a major currency of the 21st century," Bender said. "NTIS has unique legislative authority to match federal agencies that collect, use and disseminate valuable datasets with highly qualified private-sector partners. We want to make it easier for federal agencies to efficiently use and share their data in agile and innovative ways."

It remains to be seen whether the latest moves from NTIS will placate the agency's critics on Capitol Hill. Active legislation in the Senate calls for eliminating the agency. Similar legislation has been introduced but not passed in previous sessions of Congress.

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