I’ve always marveled at how the more the government talks about transparency, the more opaque it seems to become. Despite some decent efforts at revealing federal spending online, even knowledgeable people have trouble finding information they want. One piece of evidence is the vitality of the market for subscription-based information services about the government — many of which are used by the government itself. The more the government launches dashboards, data sets and websites for every little initiative, the harder is seems to find exactly what you are looking for. In an earlier post, I described the latest entry into the spending-business opportunity market, Govini. It joined the legacy service from Deltek and the several-year-old Bloomberg Government service. No Bloomberg launched a site redesign and new features. In the old days, services such as these had analysts who spent their time on the phone or running to document rooms in agencies. They still engage in a lot of old- fashioned research. But increasingly, services are taking a big data approach to creating information products. They ingest raw data from numerous federal sources then apply scrubbers and carefully-written algorithms to make sense of it. They feed the data to graphic visualization front ends. It amounts to a new approach to the traditional value-added data products business. Because this approach is machine-driven, it means the services can innovate new products much more often and deploy them quickly. Luckily for the paying users, there’s an arms race going on to add features and capabilities. A case in point: Bloomberg’s new Small Business Dashboard. Subscribers can, by NAICS code, agency or combination of agencies, find out the total spend, total goal, shortfall and open opportunities for small business awards. It all displays in simple bar charts, one each for the various categories of set-aside companies. From the bar charts you can drill down to the individual vendor or contract level to find open opportunities. I could see that the Defense Information Systems agency has nearly met all of its small business goals with 63 days left in the fiscal year, where as the Energy Department appears to be billions behind. The BGOV site takes the original Bloomberg terminal approach that puts the user in a total information environment he or she can “live” in for a working day. For example, when I was checking out the new Small Business Dashboard, a crawler indicated the court martial had released its verdict in the Bradley Manning case. Companies pay for these data services; each must decide whether the expenditure is worth it. In all cases, it takes some diligence and training to get good at finding and interpreting the exact facts you need. You can’t make natural language queries, such as, “How much did the government spend on toner cartridges in the third quarter of fiscal 2013.” That may come down the road. In the meantime, the data-driven, analytical approach to business development has set in. As in baseball, experience and personal connections remain important, but everything works better with a solid grounding in statistics and evidence.
Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-10 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.