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Opinion Editorial -- Forbes -- The New 'Economic Census' Will Help Unleash the Economic Magic of U.S. Government Data

Friday, March 28,, 2013

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker
Opinion Editorial, Forbes
"The New 'Economic Census' Will Help Unleash the Economic Magic of U.S. Government Data"

“If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic – being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle. These are all things that would have been considered magic a few hundred years ago” — Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Paypal.

I know first-hand the power of data to which Mr. Musk refers. Twenty-seven years ago, my first start-up was built with the help of government data from the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau. Not realizing the source of the data or the centuries-long history behind the numbers, I just knew the data were accurate, relevant, and timely – and most importantly, helped us make smart business decisions of where to locate our senior living facilities.

Since taking office last summer, my appreciation of our department’s rich data resources has grown exponentially. As a business leader, I saw our data resources as an under-appreciated national asset that could enable innovation, inform decisions, and fuel economic growth. As such, we have made unleashing the Department’s data a top priority of our Open for Business Agenda.

The rationale for this effort is clear: McKinsey reports that $3 trillion in additional value per year can be derived by unlocking more data, giving rise to hundreds of companies, new products and services, and improved efficiency and effectiveness of operations.

Few of us think about it, but Commerce Department data touch and benefit all Americans daily-whether through our cellphones (courtesy of the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s atomic clock), the weather report (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), or the economic and demographic characteristics of our nation and communities (Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis). Yet, too much valuable data may fly under our radars.

Just this week, Census will begin releasing data from one of our hidden treasures, the Economic Census. The business community cousin of the decennial Census, the Economic Census renders a high definition image of the more than 7 million businesses throughout the country, while closely safeguarding the confidentiality of their responses.

Major corporations and small businesses alike use this data to make smart decisions and create jobs. For example, a manufacturer of mid-sized trucks used Economic Census data to identify hubs of plumbing and electrical contractors to help decide where to expand its distribution and service network. We also recently learned about the owner of a small fast-food restaurant chain in the southwest who was considering whether to add drive-thru windows. Using the phenomenal level of detail in the Economic Census, the owner found that in his area, 42 percent of fast-food restaurant revenue came from drive-thru lanes. Knowing this made his decision – and loan approval – much easier.

Census has also just released its most recent data on demographics at the local level. Smart businesses will mine this data to discover where their customers are and gain insight into how people move around the country, the extent to which mobility has recovered, and how the age characteristics of our people are changing.

Yet, the reality is our department can do a lot better to unlock more of this rich data – making it easier to discover, access, and use. Only by reducing barriers to identifying, accessing, and combining our datasets, can we fully realize their potential value and maximize the return to taxpayers and the millions of businesses and households that respond to our surveys. The big data revolution recognizes the value that comes from seeing diverse datasets as part of a single, rich tapestry.

Our mission at the Department – and throughout the federal government – is to transform our datasets into fully realized national assets.  Today, we are partnering with the private sector more than ever to do just that.

Businesses have been responding to calls for recommendations on new, potentially unconventional, ways to unlock effectively and efficiently all of the 20 terabytes of data that NOAA alone collects and generates every day. We are also spearheading (through NIST) the development of common data standards and architecture, toward a vision of a powerful platform to provide universal access.

As the federal government’s “Innovation Agency,” we are engaging with businesses and citizens nationwide to understand how you use our data, how we can execute better, and how we can help lead and enable the era of big data.

To borrow a phrase from Mr. Musk, harnessing more of the “magic” of this powerful data can help us deliver needed economic opportunity for millions of Americans.

Penny Pritzker is the 38th U.S. Secretary of Commerce.