Big data bureau comes into the digital age

Census data is open for the taking

“We are in the midst of a major digital transformation in the United States and there’s a whole new digital economy taking place; a good portion of that is because the data that we collect is being released back to the public.” Avi Bender, CTO


By Lauren Larson
Federal News Radio

The Census Bureau has been in the data business for over 200 years. In the digital age, data like that is more valuable than ever.

Avi Bender is the first chief technology officer at the Census Bureau. He was brought in after the 2010 Census to “look at the complete survey lifecycle of how we collect data, process data, disseminate the information and then what are the underlying shared services and supporting infrastructure needed to really modernize our operations.” He said he views his job more as a chief transformation officer.

The first decennial census was conducted in 1790, before Census was even a bureau. It happens every ten years as required by the U.S. Constitution. The bureau also conducts economic and demographic surveys. “We’re truly a big data company and the data that we collect tell very interesting stories about the nation’s people and economy,” said Bender.

But what good is data if it isn’t used in a meaningful way. Bender said they needed to find better ways of sharing that data.

 “We see our mission as actually contributing to future economic growth and entrepreneurship, and as we look at the way we disseminate data I think we have some tremendous opportunities to release this data in a much more meaningful way so that customers out there—citizens—are better able to discover access, search, consume and ultimately derive insights from this data.”

Census releases data through a number of channels. is rich with infographics and users can download survey results. Bender said the Census Bureau employs around 40 data dissemination specialists. They work with communities to communicate data to specifically address needs. The bureau also offers a few of its own apps including America’s Economy and Dwellr.  

But Bender said the bureau is not in the business of creating mobile apps. “We would like to see apps being created by the rest of the nation… look at companies like Zillow and Uber, these are companies that actually began their business with open data. They have created their own app and found innovative ways to monetize open data—not just data released from the census bureau but frankly data that’s released from many other federal agencies. We want to see other companies really crack the code of how you take this data, that’s been collected from taxpayers, and we need to find ways of providing that data back to the public in a meaningful way.”

The API or application programming interface allows developers to take data sets and integrate them with applications. The City SDK, or software development kit, is a set of guides for developers to help them understand the data coming out of the API.

In June, Census held a competition for developers on the National Civic Day of Hacking. Bender said no monetary reward was offered for the contest. It was based only on civic engagement and helping the community. Fourteen entries were submitted. Bender said they learned a lot about the value of the data they collect from those applications.

“We ask lots of questions about individuals and where they live. Some are pretty detailed questions. For a long time there’s been some misunderstanding about the actual value of asking those questions,” said Bender. “One small company from Minneapolis, Minnesota came up with a very popular and innovative app. They came up with an app to allow citizens in Minnesota to find communities for those people who are handicapped or disabled. They were able to do that because of the data that is collected in the American Community Survey.”

And that’s just the beginning according to Bender. “This is just one example, but there are many others that we as an agency would never even think about, but that’s the importance of releasing our data in a way that we can engage with citizens.”

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