The U.S. Census Bureau’s mission has always been rooted in a basic principle of public partnership: It asks every person living in America to participate in its constitutionally mandated once-a-decade population count and relies on public participation to produce more than 130 other surveys each year.
But what happens when we ask the public to help us come up with the most innovative ways to design how we collect our data?
“We’re calling on America’s brightest minds to help us discover the next methods and data sources for the U.S. Census Bureau,” says Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau’s deputy director.
That’s the idea behind StatVentures, an initiative of Census Open Innovation Labs (COIL) launched in October. StatVentures scouts technology through collaborations with innovators outside government to ensure the Census Bureau provides quality data more efficiently, creatively and effectively.
“We’re calling on America’s brightest minds to help us discover the next methods and data sources for the U.S. Census Bureau.” – Ron Jarmin, Census Bureau’s deputy director.
“On the heels of our highly successful Small Business and Household Pulse surveys, we’re launching a new experiment in providing high-quality data, faster,” Jarmin says.
Traditionally, the Census Bureau has sought out technologies that improve its existing data collection methods. The new program will hold multi-phased competitions to reinvent and improve datasets – specifically those that have been earmarked by the Census Bureau as ripe for innovation.
The initiative gives participants from outside the government the opportunity to submit a concept on ways to significantly improve Census Bureau data. They can develop it to the point of testing and receive periodic feedback and award money. Their concepts may eventually be adopted by the Census Bureau.
“We know that Americans have the ingenuity to improve the way we work,” Jarmin says. “And we’re excited to build a pipeline of new measurement techniques in partnership with their talents.”
The new program comes at an opportune time: As the COVID-19 pandemic relentlessly ushers in a new normal of production ebbs and flows worldwide, StatVentures’ first challenge is to identify new, improved ways to measure America’s supply chain data.
“With constant changes to the global economic outlook, the recent challenges in supply chain logistics and technologies, expansion of e-commerce and the adoption of new types of data streams, the Census Bureau is ready to explore new data sources and measurement techniques to supplement or evolve our current products and methodologies,” says Nick Orsini, the Census Bureau’s associate director for economic programs. “This area of our work is ripe for collaboration, and we’re excited to explore new approaches from industry experts that we can adopt to continuously improve.”
Phase 1 of the StatVentures Supply Chain Challenge recently invited the public to submit concept notes to improve supply chain data and will continue to accept applications until December 2.
Winners of this first round will receive $10,000 and an invitation to join an elite cohort of innovators who will work with the Census Bureau during two more phases of the competition. They will develop their concepts into working models that could become the next methods and data sources for the Census Bureau.
While StatVentures is the Census Bureau’s first venture fund, it’s not the first time a Census Bureau competition has inspired ground-breaking technology.
In 1888, the Census Bureau launched a competition to solve a pressing problem: collecting more data than it could tabulate. Census Bureau employee Herman Hollerith entered an electronic tabulation machine, dubbed the Hollerith Machine, he had invented that added data faster than ever before. The Census Bureau would use modified versions of his machine until replaced by computers in the 1960s.
Hollerith and his work were a primary inspiration for StatVentures and the possibilities the venture fund holds.
“As we continue to explore new paths to open innovation as a bureau, we’ve been so inspired by what’s been done at other successful federal venture funds, including In-Q-Tel, AFWerx and Pilot IRS,” says Drew Zachary, COIL’s managing director. “Products coming out of those programs have improved both government operations and Americans’ daily lives. We’re excited to launch an equally high-impact program for the federal statistical community.”
Inspired to improve the future of federal data? RSVP and apply for a virtual Information session November 17 that will provide more details on the program and how to apply and offer opportunities to find like-minded competitors to team up with on concept notes.
Victoria Elizabeth Fine is a senior advisor at Census Open Innovation Labs.
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