Innovative Open Data Initiative Helps International Trade Administration Enhance Accessibility

The open data project has enabled businesses to use ITA information to improve compliance with trade regulations and requirements.

by / August 15, 2016
A ship unloads cargo in Tacoma, Wash. Flickr/Andrew Albertson

For shoppers today, the world is their oyster. Thanks to an expanding global, e-commerce marketplace, you can buy a Moroccan rug directly from Morocco, or a handcrafted piece of art made halfway around the world. To keep up with the fast pace of the marketplace, the International Trade Administration (ITA) has implemented a new open data initiative to enhance accessibility and support for U.S.-based companies.

While the ITA has historically provided direct trade promotion assistance to about 25,000 U.S. companies, that number has skyrocketed thanks to a booming global marketplace.

“The combination of a global trade moving to Web-based e-commerce, multiple free trade agreements and the expansion of wealth into a far broader range of global markets has created opportunities for almost any U.S.-based company to sell their products and services overseas,” said ITA CIO Joe Paiva.

As a result, the ITA was faced with serving a much larger customer base — about 10 times larger.

“The challenge that leaves for the ITA is, how do you transform from an organization that serves 25,000 customers to an organization that serves 250,000, without any appreciable increase in resources?”  Paiva said.

What’s more, the ITA was searching for a way to make its valuable export data and services more accessible to businesses. Since the information was essentially “trapped” in internal systems and websites, it wasn’t clear to customers where information was located, or that it even existed.

The solution came in the form of a new open data initiative that takes a new approach to data sharing.

“The strategy we adopted to meet this challenge is two-fold," Paiva said. "One, we develop a platform that enables us to deliver our products and services via both semi- and fully-automated delivery models, and two, we develop a ‘wholesale’ distribution model that leverages partners to provide trade promotion products and service to U.S. companies. Making our products and services available as APIs to our partners is a core element of the second half of that strategy.”

To accomplish this, the ITA partnered with a federal systems integrator, Govwizely, that leveraged open source tools from Elastic, including Elastisearch, Logstash and Kibana. Together, the partners were able to consolidate information, enhance search functions and open access to raw data. As a result of the new open data project, businesses are now able to use ITA information to improve compliance with trade regulations and requirements.

Govwizely Director Erik Arnold notes that this approach helps to reposition the data in a relevant, valuable way for businesses. Case in point: Previously, exporters were required to review “screening lists” spread out across 11 different locations before shipping products.

“Before this approach took over, if I wanted to send something overseas, I would have to search separately on each of these 11 lists. No one ever squished them all together and made them searchable,” explained Erik. “So, certainly exporters haven’t been happy that they had to search separately because it’s almost impossible to comply. Now with this single search tool, compliance should be much easier and we have the most popular API in use to follow that model.”

George Young, director of Federal Government for Elastic, points out that this project is a great example of how their tools may be a fit for all government agencies, as they offer superior flexibility in a cost-effective way.

“You can imagine that anyone who is struggling with a large amount of data and trying to search across it are not only limited technically, but also by budget,” he says. “The governments are being asked to do more and more for their missions and aren’t getting more funding. Elasticsearch has become a critical piece of a lot of those projects.”

For the ITA, the results are already speaking for themselves.

“[We have] already started to see benefits in the form of partners sharing our data with their customers by embedding it within their websites and applications. That idea of ‘a friend of my friend is a friend’ is already benefitting tens of thousands of U.S. companies who use ITA information every day without knowing it," Paiva said, adding that this is because the ITA's information is embedded in shipping company applications and other tools they use to ensure they follow applicable export regulations, calculate correct duties and price their products for overseas delivery. “It has also helped us in terms of enabling us to automate new features and processes quickly and inexpensively by using our own APIs for internal development as well.”

With such promising results, Paiva said he believes that this approach is a great solution to open data challenges across the government sector.

“Every government agency now has their own open data initiative,” he said. “We think it is silly for each agency to develop their own, unique path to open data success, and urge them all to use the same type of industry best practices in terms of COTS-as-a-service, cloud-based solutions and open standard/open source as much as possible.”

Julia McCandless Contributing Writer

Julia McCandless is a journalist passionate about finding the story and telling it well. She currently works as a freelance journalist and communications expert in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and son.