U.S. government's open data proves a treasure trove for savvy businesses

Cindy Waxer

But unlocking open data's value remains a challenge. For one thing, much of today's open data flows from a whopping 10,000 federal information systems, many of which are based on outdated technologies. And because open data can be messy and riddled with inaccuracies, IT professionals struggle to achieve the data quality and accuracy levels required for making important business decisions. Then there are the data integration headaches and lack of in-house expertise that can easily hinder the transformation of open data into actionable business intelligence.

Yet for those IT leaders who manage to convert decades-old county records, public housing specs and precipitation patterns into a viable business plan, "the sky's the limit," says Gurin.

Gurin should know. As part of his work at the GovLab, he's compiling a who's who list of U.S. companies that are using government data to generate new business. Known as the Open Data 500, the list features a wide array of businesses -- from scrappy startups like Calcbench, which is turning SEC filings into financial insights for investors, to proven successes like The Climate Corporation. Recently purchased by Monsanto for about $1 billion, The Climate Corporation uses government weather data to revamp agricultural production practices.

Although their business models vary wildly, there's one thing the Open Data 500 companies have in common: IT departments that have figured out how to collect, cleanse, integrate and package reams of messy data for public consumption.

Take Zillow, for example. Zillow is an online real estate database that crunches housing data to provide homeowners and real estate professionals with estimated home values, foreclosure rates and the projected cost of renting vs. buying. Founded in 2005 by two former Microsoft executives, the Seattle-based outfit is now valued at more than $1 billion. But success didn't arrive overnight.

"Anyone who has worked with public record data knows that real estate data is among the noisiest you can get. It's a train wreck," says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, referring to the industry's lack of standard formatting. "It's our job to take that massive hairball and pull relevant facts out of it."

Today, Zillow has a team of 16 Ph.D.-wielding data analysts and engineers who use proprietary advanced analytics tools to synthesize everything from sales listings to census data into easy-to-digest reports. One of the biggest challenges for Zillow's IT department has been creating a system that integrates government data from more than 3,000 counties.

Anyone who has worked with public record data knows that real estate data is among the noisiest you can get. It's our job to take that massive hairball and pull relevant facts out of it. Stan Humphries, chief economist, Zillow

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