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Machine-Readable, Interoperable Data for Data-Driven Organizations

By November 4, 2013Article

In an industry once rife with information silos and political jockeying, the task of producing machine-readable and standardized data has been low priority for most government agencies.

Nevertheless, as governments are asked to do more with less, the case for interoperable data becomes more and more attractive and important.

According to SmartProcure CEO Jeff Rubenstein, “Eighty-five thousand U.S. government agencies spend over $20 billion each day on products and services.” Rubenstein suggests that less than 10 percent of those agencies actually get the best price available to them.

Rubenstein’s startup capitalizes on the need for better government procurement processes by exposing the purchasing data available across local, state and federal governments. SmartProcure aggregates pricing, products and vendor data to help agencies procure the best possible value for tax dollars — a service that costs participating governments nothing. The information is then made available to government contractors to help them determine market opportunities, product trends and competitive intelligence.

As a business, SmartProcure isn’t just poised to help governments save money; it’s leveling the playing field for newcomers to challenge legacy IT vendors. With billions at stake, it’s not surprising to see a slew of scrappy new civic tech startups emerge to meet the needs of government.

One such startup is OpenCounter. Born out of a Code for America Fellowship, OpenCounter was built in 2012 as a way for the City of Santa Cruz, Calif. to remove bottlenecks from its business permitting process. At the time, business owners were required to apply for permits from seven different departments and none of the data was standardized or shared across agencies. Wisely, the City chose to change the process and worked with a Fellowship team to produce a unified, online system for business permit applications.

OpenCounter reduces the need for duplicate information and offers business owners visibility into the permits, entitlements, time and money required of them. The application is so successful that it’s since transitioned into a nationwide company with high demand for redeployment by other government agencies.

For Santa Cruz and a number of other local governments, better data practices are translating to issues as real as job creation and reduced spending. In other cases, efficient and interoperable data processes are empowering governments to better expose opportunities to the businesses who’ve always been eligible for incentives.

In Las Vegas, a team of Code for America fellows is currently utilizing the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) to develop an app for the city.

Originally used by the Census Bureau to assess the state of North America’s economy, NAICS is a six-digit classification with each digit corresponding to a specific economic sector, industry group or nation (in this case the United States, Canada and Mexico). Fellows Lou Huang and Ryan Closner quickly realized that this same well-established system could help them recommend commercial land use options by coupling it with other public datasets.

The two combined NAICS with land use, building occupancy, zoning and business incentive data to produce Development FastPass. The app helps business owners research the best options to locate their businesses within Las Vegas. What’s more, if the duo can convince a third-party vendor like Trulia to contribute information, there’s a chance that FastPass will do more than just reveal a property. It will help facilitate its lease or purchase.

It’s precisely this type of outcome that makes a strong case for machine-readable and interoperable data.

New York’s chief analytics officer Mike Flowers says, “Half of the effort to becoming data driven is connecting the data; and that is an organizational challenge, not a technological one.”

The task now for government innovators is to convince their colleagues of the transformative and cost-saving potential of standardizing their data. While still in its infancy, the government startup ecosystem emerging with groups like SmartProcure, OpenCounter and FastPass offer evidence of how quality data can shape communities. The trick now is using these and other exemplary cases to shape widespread policy and practices.

If you’re a data management vendor with an interest in serving government, I can literally think of billions of reasons to make the pivot. For more information on the opportunity in civic technology, visit

Dana Oshiro is senior marketing manager at Code for America, where she supports civic hackers and innovators in their efforts to improve communities. Prior to her position at CfA she worked in tech journalism, publishing, public affairs, environmental health and anti-poverty advocacy. She currently posts her thoughts on technology at The Next Web and shares her thoughts at @danaoshiro.



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