With agencies like the National Weather Service, the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis under its umbrella, the Commerce Department generates a lot of data, most of which it wants to push out to the public. But numbers in a vacuum aren't very useful.

Jeff Chen — the department's first chief data scientist — wants to make sure the public gets the most out of government data and so started the Data Usability Project.

"The area of data education has not received as much attention as it should. It really is at the heart of the open data process — moving from just releasing data to encouraging open knowledge," Chen said, noting it's just as challenging to illustrate that process.

In its current state, the Data Usability Project is focused as much on the 'how' of using data as it is about encouraging its dissemination. The first phase includes tutorials explaining how to get started using the data Commerce produces — how to access it, what it means and some ideas on how to visualize the information.

"It's meant to be an initial experiment in how data should be presented," Chen said. "Open data releases are great — they give people access to interesting data sets — but I think we can be doing more."

The project officially started in November with a set of smaller pilots but fully launched last week with a new public-facing website. The site hosts the first four tutorials, along with supporting information to help budding data scientists get started.

The goal is to get users comfortable enough to explore their own ideas.

"The target audience are novice/intermediate data users, as well as undergraduate and graduate programs," Chen said. "It's the sweet spot where folks are sufficiently curious" but might not be data experts.

He said fostering a community of interest around using data and getting the public involved in the work would be a "home run."

For the federal employees pushing the data out, the project can add an extra layer of validation to their work.

"For Commerce, every single data producer loves to see their data get used," Chen said. "With tens of thousands of data sets out there, providing a little nudge to help someone understand" the technical side of using data helps make that happen.

Project managers expect to announce some of the first partnerships in the next month or so, Chen said, which will allow Commerce to expand its library of tutorials and bring in more expertise from the academic community.

Over the longer view, Chen said he hopes the project can show other agencies the importance of pushing open data while also promoting public engagement.

"The long-term goal is to illustrate the value of modern data services," he said. "It will also provide incentive to agencies to staff up in those areas," including hiring more data scientists like himself.