MIT Open Data Portal: A One-Stop Shop for Federal Government Data?

MIT Media Lab and tech companies Deloitte and Datawheel have released Data USA, an open source platform promoted as the “the most comprehensive website and visualization engine” ever created for U.S. government data.

by / April 4, 2016
M.I.T. Media Lab publishes Data USA, a comprehensive national data visualization and analytics site for citizens. M.I.T. Media Lab

Combing through federal data has typically been a daunting affair. Even with tools and know-how, it requires patience and a penchant for understanding minutiae. Yet a partnership between the MIT Media Lab and tech companies Deloitte and Datawheel are vying to change this.

On Monday, April 4, the trio released Data USA, an open source platform promoted as “the most comprehensive website and visualization engine” ever created for U.S. government data. The lofty claim is delivered about a site that aggregates federal open data from multiple sources and displays it in interactive visuals — colorful charts, maps, profiles and even a few pieces of data-based journalism.

Unlike scores of citizen analytics sites before it, Data USA embraces the role of data curator and — with minimal nudges — guides its visitors to create actionable data insights. The approach is fairly novel compared to older open data portals. In the past, data portals in both government and the private sector have assumed their users had a high level of technical expertise. Now with Data USA, data scientists are reaching out to citizens and community groups, listening to feedback, and enticing interaction with a user-friendly experience and a guiding taxonomy of graphics and menus.

“Our team, comprised of economists, data scientists, designers, researchers and business executives, worked for over a year [beginning in 2014] with input from policymakers, government officials and everyday citizens to develop Data USA ...,” the group said on its site. “It allows millions of people to conduct their own analyses and create their own stories about America — its people, places, industries, skill sets and educational institutions.”

The group said site uses are many, with potential pathways for analytics numbering in the millions. Executives could visit Data USA to find the right place to find customers and a skilled workforce for a company relocation, while college graduates could identify where their skills are demanded and health-care providers could harness the site to discover patterns and behaviors of diseases. The intent, the group said, is to lay a foundation for an inclusive set of storytelling tools that benefit citizens in nearly every industry.

“Data USA puts public U.S. government data in your hands,” the group said. “Instead of searching through multiple data sources that are often incomplete and difficult to access, you can simply point to Data USA to answer your questions."