The United States government has an approach to integrating technology into the lives of communities across the country that uses an old-fashioned idea: getting people to work together.
Called The Opportunity Project, the initiative is led by the U.S. Department of Commerce and offers a straightforward way for tech companies, government and communities to form projects that will “create digital tools that address our greatest challenges as a nation,” according to the project site.
President Barack Obama launched the Opportunity Project in March 2016. His goal was clearly defined. While more people have moved out of poverty in many areas of the U.S., many still lack access to resources needed to improve their lives.
That includes information such as the latest jobs listings, data on affordable housing and details on the quality of local schools.
In talking about the project at the 2016 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Obama said he wanted to “recruit” people from tech companies, universities and the nonprofit sector to help solve national issues. He said, “How can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today?”
Improving Access To Data
Transparency of government data and access to information are the foundational ideas driving The Opportunity Project. Essentially, it’s getting community leaders together with tech workers and government agencies to bring 21st century solutions to decades-old issues.
To start, six federal government departments developed a list of national priorities. They included the departments of labor, transportation, education, housing and urban development, agriculture and veterans’ affairs as well as the Office of the Surgeon General.
A host of tech companies, as well as college students, then began to develop 29 different digital tool sets to help people find solutions to challenges on that list. The companies included Airbnb, FitBit and Mapbox as well as the University of Oregon. They made it easier to access government data and help people with issues such as:
- Building job skills in needed areas
- Find job openings in their area
- Increase transit accessibility
- Make it easier for families to find information on the quality of schools
Transforming Government Data
A big part of the launch also involved making it easier to access “high-value” data kept by the federal government. This includes information on civil rights from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection Application Program Interfaces.
Since then, the department has also added the College Scoreboard and My Brother’s Keeper. The former has detailed data on U.S. colleges and universities, including cost and academic rankings. The latter stores data on life outcomes of young men of color in the U.S. based on a variety of factors.
Also, data on jobs, needed skills in the market, training and wages are available through the Department of Labor’s OpenSkills API.
How To Get Involved
Anyone has the chance to start an Opportunity Project. All that is required is a challenge that can be solved with a technology and data tool. Since its inception, many creative minds have developed diverse ways to improve access to or teach people about data.
For example, a product development manager at Cisco created a game that allows players to learn about U.S. Census data as they move through an online game that also involves superheroes and rescue missions. The game is called My City Data Learning Tool.
The game features data on population, city infrastructure and details on specific neighborhoods.
Kyla Fullenwider, chief innovation officer at the Census Bureau, said the game is an example of how digital tools can spur learning in every corner of the country.
“We can’t do it alone, we need the public-private partnerships that were demonstrated today,” Fullenwider said at a demo of the game last November, according to Federal News Radio. She said it also demonstrates that government works better in collaboration with businesses and the nonprofit sector.
For those interested in starting an Opportunity Project, the government has a step-by-step process detailing how to find a challenge, build a team, conduct research, explore the data and build the needed digital tool.