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Participants in Open Data Roundtables Guide USDA on Ways to Provide High Quality Data to Users

“Find out who your audience and users are, then figure out the best, easiest way to provide data to them.”

Last week, the Obama Administration focused on a specific climate risk – the risk to the food supply – and the ways data could be used to help increase “food resilience.” The goal is to make data, computational power, and analytic tools available to help food producers, distributors, and inspectors keep the food supply reliable and robust.

As part of that effort, last Friday the GovLab and the USDA co-hosted an Open Data Roundtable on food resilience to bring together government officials, companies, and nonprofits to improve the use of data on climate and agriculture. Like the Roundtable we hosted with the White House and the Department of Commerce in June, this event was designed to promote a dialogue between government agencies that supply data and the companies and organizations that use it. The ultimate goal of all our Roundtables is to make open government data more relevant, accessible, and actionable.

While it may be a few weeks before all the suggestions from last Friday’s Open Data Roundtable at USDA are compiled into a report, companies and USDA officials came away with a better understanding of how public data is gathered, disseminated and processed by users.  The meeting was part of a series of discussions initiated by USDA.  Undersecretary and Chief Scientist Cathie Woteki, Deputy Undersecretary Ann Bartuska and Chief Information Officer (CIO) Cheryl Cook listened to and participated in discussions aimed at making it easier for crop, weather, soil and other information gathered by USDA to be provided to those who need it, here in America and abroad.

Some of the recommendations made by the group during two breakout sessions:

  • Things change, so develop an ongoing dialogue between users and providers of the data. Reach out to users (customers) to determine what they value and what they use.
  • Standardize data across sets so that, for example, the definition of something as simple as “corn” is universal.
  • Develop a better system to enable a searcher to get what he or she wants without having to sort through reams of data first.
  • Have a “crosscut” system to keep users from having to go to multiple agencies or places for portions of the data they need.  Provide “one stop” service.
  • Provide better service to those who request information under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Standardize tables to make it easier for business to convert raw data into information it needs.
  • Create a “data concierge” to assist users, improve the search function of
  • Set long terms improvement goals and develop a roadmap to get there.  Improve geospatial data and make it the “highest quality possible.”
  • Build an app that provides a “real time” data alert system, which could also be employed by USDA and other government departments to share information with the public during times of crisis or disaster.
  • Leverage data that is already available, such as drought monitoring and let it be used for expanded purposes, such as predictive analysis to drive efficiencies and insight to create a smarter “AgriBusiness”.

The White House recognized the value of the Open Data Roundtables in the U.S. Open Data Action Plan, released on May 9, 2014, which described the Roundtables as helping to “support innovators and improve open data based on feedback.” The Plan notes that “Specific, actionable feedback from these sessions [the Roundtables] and others has the potential to improve descriptions, formats, and accessibility of government data.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, Dr. Woteki pledged to continue her effort to provide more, free access to USDA’s scholarship and data.  She noted that these efforts build on an Open Data event spearheaded by the G-8 countries at the World Bank over a year ago, and continued this week as African leaders from many nations came to Washington to discuss agricultural and other issues.  “Agriculture has a growing role in open data implementation, because we face a growing challenge to produce more food for more people, and to provide the services they expect,” said Dr. Woteki. “The only way to achieve this is through collaborative work, innovation sharing, and research.”  USDA CIO Cook talked about how data was crucial to her previous jobs with the State of Pennsylvania, then as a Federal official in the Clinton and Obama administrations.  “As someone who has been a data producer and a data user,” said Cook, “I understand the need to consolidate data so it can be used for multiple purposes to help our clients achieve their goals. We support public-private partnerships, open data and the need to know who is using our data and how, so we can serve them better.”

One Response to “Participants in Open Data Roundtables Guide USDA on Ways to Provide High Quality Data to Users”

  1. Aurea L. Rivera says:

    Greetings. As a start-up business advancing Precision Agriculture I found the USDA data holdings as the most comprehensive data repository for creating the ground truth required to test algorithms and techniques. I have to concur with the observation that the data structure for the reports needs to be modernized to provide for a more agile data extraction process; further, once the information is mined, geospatial representation can add so much substance to any report that will bring more “farmer” traffic to the websites.
    My company is staffing a series of Small Business Innovation Research proposals focused on the shortfalls identified in the round table. As a data scientist and retired senior leader for the Department of Defense I can assure you that the knowledge and applications exist to make the vision of a transparent, user friendly, and agile USDA Data Analytics web presence a reality.

    Lastly…we all assume that the “cloud” infrastructure will be there to facilitate all data transactions at the farmer-supplier levels. I beg to differ…your 2012 Census Results and your data collection methods to acquire your Census data will provide you the best answers.

    Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to discuss this matter further.


    Respectfully Yours,

    Aurea L. Rivera, P.E.
    Imagineering Results Analysis Corp.
    Dayton, OH

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