'Big data’ going public?

The Commerce Department wants to unleash the power of “big data,” but it’s looking for the public’s help.

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a formal request asking for private companies to help make its immense amounts of data on the air, oceans and climate available to the public.

“We are, I think, fundamentally an environmental intelligence agency,” NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan told The Hill.


The agency uses vast networks of buoys, weather stations, satellites, ships and aircraft to monitor conditions from the surface of the sun to the ocean floor.  

The problem, though, is not all that data is not making it out to the public.

Of the 20 terabytes (TB) of information the agency collects each day -- an amount Sullivan noted was twice the size of the printed records in the Library of Congress -- just about 2 TB are available to the public. 

Through the request for information, NOAA wants to change that.

“Our notion is very simple: we’re asking the private sector to help us figure out how we can unleash the power of NOAA’s data,” Sullivan said.

The agency is inviting companies of all shapes and sizes to help make that data more available to anyone who wants it, from academics to private companies. Once made public, information about the planet could help scientists, startups or massive corporations alike.  

“We look at these data as a public good,” Sullivan said.

“They’ve been collected through public means. The American people in a sense already own them. I think an ideal model from our point of view would be one that preserves that characteristic of the data being a public good and really sort of turns it into an open innovation platform that anyone could have at.”

NOAA’s effort is part of a broader trend to take advantage of the benefits of analyzing huge amounts of data at the Commerce Department and throughout the Obama administration. 

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has declared data one of the four core principles of the department’s operating agenda.

President Obama has also tapped John Podesta, a top counselor, to lead a review of big data and privacy.