Commerce to economists: Please use our data

The department's components are working hard to provide better data, but they need users to buoy the work through the tumultuous coming years.

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At a July 7 lunch with the National Economists Club, top Commerce Department officials touted the work they've done to improve their data quality and made a simple request: Use it.

"It is absolutely critical that you use what we're doing," said Justin Antonipillai, counselor to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Commerce's data-churning component agencies include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

Antonipillai said the agencies that make up the Commerce Data Service have been busy building application programming interfaces to improve the usability of those agencies' data and conducting outreach to make potential users aware of how much data is available.

In addition, the Commerce Data Academy offers training opportunities for the department's 50,000 employees. Antonipillai said the training has drawn unprecedented interest.

"In the government, you often offer training and five, 10 people sign up," he quipped. "[But] 3,500 people signed up for our first training sessions on data science. It was incredible."

Post-training, Commerce employees apprentice with the Data Service and then bring their new data skills back to their agencies.

As a result of the training push, Commerce has moved away from publishing data in PDFs -- "a more modern version of a book," Antonipillai said -- and instead publishes a data library in R, a programming language popular with statisticians.

The open-source library should debut at BEA in the next few weeks, he added.

"Rather than pulling up individual datasets and scanning for the particular data you want, you will be able to use this R library to pull up and visualize the data immediately," he told the assembled economists. "I think it has the potential to really make your job easier."

BEA Director Brian Moyer said his agency is also exploring passive data collection, such as automatically collecting ZIP code data from credit card transactions, and combining big datasets with traditional survey data to gain deeper insights.

But all the work hinges on "real data geeks" taking advantage of it, Antonipillai said.

He acknowledged that the "fragile efforts" at Commerce will, like the rest of government, be shaken when the presidential transition takes place next year and said user demand is the key to ensuring that Commerce's data push doesn't falter.

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