|Aneesh Chopra, the first White House chief technology officer, is working to make government data accessible for tackling unemployment.|
Companies such as LinkedIn and Monster.com hold vast amounts of information on people’s professional lives, but there is one organization that surpasses them all: the federal government.
Although rich and comprehensive, government labor data can often be hard to access, bound by red tape and cloaked in jargon.
“With today’s technologies, we can do a lot more to build open data sets for skills,” said Aneesh Chopra, the White House’s first chief technology officer and founder of Arlington-based start-up Hunch Analytics.
During his tenure, Chopra’s role involved making government data more accessible. It’s a mission he has continued after his departure, assembling a band of public officials, tech entrepreneurs and think-tank analysts whose focus is firmly on the labor market.
Aneesh Chopra, the first White House chief technology officer, is working to make government data accessible for tackling unemployment. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post)
A robust economic recovery tempered by flat wages has reinforced the need to connect Americans with higher-paying technology jobs, according to the White House. That was the rationale behind the president’s new initiative, announced last week, to train and hire Americans for more than 500,000 unfilled information technology jobs through partnerships with local communities.
One of Chopra’s pilot efforts using data to tackle unemployment was a job portal for veterans called Veterans Talent, created last fall. The site scraped data from Monster and LinkedIn and mapped the locations of unemployed veterans to geographic regions that had veteran-friendly job openings.
The project was intended as a proof-of-concept, but it taught the group about the importance of open data, said Leighanne Levensaler, senior vice president of products at Workday, a human resources software company that was involved in the project.
“There’s not a standard, real-time, modern way to identify all the skills our economy needs in play today,” she said. “Workforce and talent planners have a daunting job in ensuring they have a ‘ready-now’ workforce, so the more data they can get, the better informed they are.”
The closest thing to a standard national database is the Labor Department’s Occupational Information Network Web site, known as O*Net.
Built in the 1990s, the site compiles data on more than 900 occupations, with details about job skills, average compensation and a search tool to find jobs by state. But although the site is continually updated, it has been slow to keep pace with the changing job market, according to Chopra and Levensaler.
A push to modernize O*Net is the group’s next big undertaking.
The president’s 2016 budget proposal includes a $5 million request to study and test approaches “to modernize and potentially streamline data collection” for O*Net. The measure seeks to provide “up-to-date coverage of occupations and skills, particularly for high-growth, changing industries.”
Chopra convened a roundtable of government officials, academics and private-sector executives last month to discuss measures to improve O*Net. Workday and LinkedIn are among the companies interested in the effort — which is still at a conceptual stage, Chopra said.
For LinkedIn, this isn’t the first foray into combining open data and the labor market. Last year, the company worked with the City of New York on a program led by the mayor’s office to train and hire New Yorkers for technology jobs. The plan served as a model for the president’s initiative.
LinkedIn’s “Economic Graph,” a digital map of job openings and skills based on the company’s huge database of users, was used as “a starting point for conversations with industry partners,” a spokeswoman for New York said in an e-mail. For example, LinkedIn data pointed out that although 7 percent of the city’s workforce had technical skills, only 2 percent had so-called in-demand skills, such as knowledge of the programming language Python.
The company is also part of the president’s plan, and it will provide similar data to 20 local communities participating in the effort, a LinkedIn spokesman said.
To open-data advocates such as Chopra, there’s no better time to harness the power of information for the economy.
“No one company, no matter how amazing they are, has the capacity to get every employer in America to open up their skills data for every job posting,” he said. “The government has the capacity to convene stakeholders to open up the data.”