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Commerce Data: Then & Now

Guest blog post by Mark Doms, Under Secretary for Economic Affairs

In July, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced that our department will be hiring our first ever Chief Data Officer (CDO), building on her commitment to Commerce’s role as “America’s Data Agency.” She also announced the formation of a data advisory council comprising private sector leaders who will help the CDO navigate new and dynamic data challenges. This is the latest chapter in Commerce’s long history of adapting to serve the needs of an ever-changing American economy.

The United States Department of Commerce has been a trusted provider of data and statistics for centuries. The first decennial census took place in 1790 and the first patent was issued that same year.  Today, because of advances in technology, we are able to provide Americans with more data, faster and more accurately than ever before. This transformation can be seen in the evolution of the Census Bureau.

Article 1 Section 3 of the US Constitution states that the U.S. government shall enumerate the population of the United States every 10 years. Beginning with the 1790 Decennial Census and once every decade since then, the federal government has provided this invaluable information, making the United States the first country to produce a regular count of its citizens.   

By the early 1800s it became clear that in addition to the important demographic information flowing from the decennial census, there was also an imperative for regular collection of business information. In response to that need, in 1810, the U.S. Census Bureau established a census of businesses, also known as the economic census.  The initial focal points were manufacturing, lumber yards and butcher shops. In 1902, Congress authorized the establishment of the U.S. Census Bureau and directed that the census of manufacturers be taken every five years (a “quinquennial” census).  As the economy grew, the Census Bureau responded accordingly and by 1930 it had expanded the economic census to include services.  The breadth of the survey has since changed to keep pace with our nation’s growing economy.  The 2012 economic census data are currently being released.

Over the years, the Census Bureau’s responsibilities have expanded as the need for more timely and detailed information has grown. For example, to increase accuracy and timeliness, the decennial census expanded to include vital data flowing from the annual American Community Survey (ACS).  The ACS provides demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics, but also prepares the Census Bureau for the scale of the decennial census.  The ACS has replaced the long form, so that today’s decennial census survey is no longer than ten questions. 

Other surveys such as the Current Population Survey (CPS) are conducted by the Census Bureau today to help us better estimate poverty, income, health insurance coverage, school enrollment, marital status, and family structure.  The CPS, or household survey, emerged in the 1930s as a tool to measure the jobless population.  Prior to the 1930s, no measurement of unemployment of the labor force existed, which was problematic during the Great Depression.  By the 1940s, the CPS was in place to measure the labor force and better direct public policy. 

City, state and local governments use Census data to gauge the need for public services and focus resources. Our data allow them to assess trends and create more efficient systems of service delivery. Many private companies use the same data to make investment decisions within communities such as where to open manufacturing centers or retail locations. By delivering reliable, relevant, and accessible public data, the Department of Commerce enables citizens to make more informed business decisions. The department’s data sets are used by private citizens in a variety of other ways. You may use them every day and not even know it.

Data privacy and security are and have always been a top priority for the Commerce Department’s data agencies across history. Our commitment and track record result in an outstanding volume of data, and response rates far higher than private sector data collectors. Commerce data has been a valuable resource for many generations, and with a renewed focus on promoting accessible and usable data, we will continue to provide key information for years to come.

You can read more about the data component of the Open for Business agenda and learn more about releases and events at  For more information on statistical programs and products detailing our country’s socio-economic characteristics, please visit  For more information on climate data, please visit

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