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Government hopes to help create new solutions through data release

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WASHINGTON – Federal agencies are hoping to inspire innovation by promoting data use and data understanding.

Government agencies will release data onto their websites instead of waiting for people to ask for it, Aneesh Chopra said at a panel discussion Wednesday. Chopra was the White House chief technology officer until Monday.

“You don’t have to force someone to go find it by coming to Washington, even virtually,” he said.

The panel coincided with the White House release of the Open Innovator’s Toolkit. The toolkit includes 20 pieces of advice for finding and using data from government websites.

The toolkit is part of President Barack Obama’s open government initiative. The website includes already-released data sets and a scorecard rating for each agency. The agencies have data available on open government section of their websites.

Part of the initiative will also be to continue application competitions similar to one at the Department of Health and Human Services that resulted in the “Apps Against Abuse” challenge. The national challenge was to design an application with information about sexual assault and teen dating violence.

The government isn’t the first to use crowdsourcing.

Jeff Howe coined the term crowdsourcing in a 2006 Wired Magazine article. Howe defines crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”

In 2011 scientists with the Center for Infectious Diseases at Penn State published a study  about the correlation between Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and the number of tweets about the flu.

The government’s decision to release data for anyone to use and to promote crowdsourcing is good news and a good trend, Scott Talan, an associate professor of communication at American University, said. “Data is the new black.”

The shift to digital makes sense because consumers are “certainly more digitally inclined,” Mark Briggs, Ford Fellow for entrepreneurial journalism at the Poynter Institute, said.

Those at the panel discussion said making more data available and crowdsourcing are sources for finding new solutions to national problems.

“There’s no problem America has that we can’t invent our way out of, if we apply ourselves,” Todd Park, chief technology officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said. “And what’s happening is that we’re crowdsourcing more, and more incredibly talented people who are unleashing their mojo to help solve our biggest problems.”

The open data should allow more people to use the information to create new projects, the panelists said.

The data could be used to create new technology startups in the private sector, Chopra said.

For now, it is hard to see the limits to using data, Talan said.

“You could see nonprofits using the data in ways government never thought of,” he said.

Data crowdsourcing is also being used within government agencies.

Peter Levin, senior adviser to the secretary and chief technology at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency used crowdsourcing to gather ideas from the department’s 50,000 employees about how to speed up the claims process.

Crowdsourcing open datasets could allow for problems to be solved in “not in years, not in months, not in weeks, dare I say in 30 minutes,” Chopra said.

“No matter who you are, you have to remember that most of the smart people in the world don’t work for you,” Park said. “Don’t just have your own smart people work on your problem, have everyone else in the world who cares about your problem work on it with you.”

Reach reporter Jordain Carney atcarneyj@shns.com or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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