by Kenneth Corbin

Obama’s big data project targets community improvement

Mar 10, 2016
Big DataGovernmentOpen Source

White House Opportunity Project initiative is a grass-roots effort to push out government data and encourage nonprofits, developers and others to build new community-improvement tools.

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As businesses are scrambling to make better use of the growing volume of data they are collecting, the federal government sees in big data an opportunity for meaningful social improvement.

The Obama administration this week launched the Opportunity Project, a coordinated effort to use “open data effort to improve economic mobility for all Americans,” according to a White House fact sheet.

[ Related: Feds advance open data roadmap despite challenges ]

Aden Van Noppen, an advisor in the office of the U.S. CTO, explained that the federal government sees its role in the Opportunity Project as something of a facilitator, that it aims to bring together far-flung data sets and make them available in an open and usable format, inviting developers to build applications that could provide new insights on issues like education, employment and transportation at the community level.

“This came into being because we realized that federal open data is much more meaningful when we do some of the work of combining and curating so that the data can really paint a comprehensive picture of something that matters a lot to people, which is access to assets in their community,” Van Noppen said at a White House event launching the initiative.

[ Related: Cultural challenges slow federal open data efforts ]

“We also realized that this data is much more meaningful when things are built in partnership, so it’s really at the intersection for different life experiences, expertise, when you bring together technologists with community groups with local governments, and that’s what we’ve done,” she added.

How the Opportunity Project aims to make government data open

The Opportunity Project continues efforts underway at the Obama administration to make government data open and machine-readable by default, part of a broader recognition that the federal government, as the largest data steward in the country, is sitting on assets of incalculable value, but that that potential is only to be realized if the information is accessible. Officials are quick to cite the economic gold rush that came after the release geospatial and weather data through the GPS initiative and National Weather Service.

To date, around 200,000 federal data sets are available to the public through

Van Noppen also said that the grass-roots spirit of the Opportunity Project is in keeping with Obama’s history as a community organizer. So at the program’s website, the government is offering a host of resources for developers, as well as new applications that various companies and nonprofits are rolling out as part of the launch. Real estate listing site Zillow, for instance, has built a tool offering new visualizations of the growth opportunities in neighborhoods of Baltimore. The crowdsourcing platform Streetwyze is offering a “ground-truthing” tool that draws input from local residents about the contours of a neighborhood. In a demonstration, a representative of the group showed a visualization of the thick concentration of facilities listed as “grocery stores” in Oakland, a cluster that was quickly winnowed down when residents reported through Streetwyze how many of those shops were actually liquor stores or corner stores.

[ Related: Health IT could curb prescription drug abuse, but adoption lags ]

Those applications are among a dozen new tools that are rolling out in association with the White House Opportunity Project. Additionally, more than 30 nonprofits, local governments and other organizations have made commitments to use resources made available through the project to offer new services to their communities in what the White House hopes will become an easily replicable framework of data-driven collaboration that can take hold around the country.

“It’s not just a federal initiative anymore, it’s connecting all the way to cities and local environments,” said DJ Patil, the first person to hold the title of U.S. chief data scientist.