Q&A: Stephen Buckner discusses new Census Bureau app and digital government strategy milestones

Despite launching a new app, Buckner says Census isn't in "the app-building business"
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The Census Bureau released its first mobile app, "America's Economy," on Aug. 9--just days after it opened two application programming interfaces, or APIs, to better share demographic data with developers.

FierceMobileGovernment spoke with Stephen Buckner, director of the center for new media and promotions at the Census Bureau, to learn more about its new app and better understand the bureau's vision for digital services going forward.

Stephen Buckner: The app is really an illustration of what we are trying to do at the Census Bureau with the overall web transformation as well as interaction with our users. We want to be able to provide more timely and accessible statistics to them, whether they're coming to our website or on their mobile devices. We've got to do better at allowing them to find and get at the information they are looking at.

America's Economy is our first mobile app but we feel like it does a great job at giving users a real quick glimpse into what's going on currently, based on the latest economic indicators coming out of our agency, as well as BEA [the Bureau of Economic Analysis] and BLS [the Bureau of Labor Statistics].

So, you look at that first splash screen and right up at front you get a list of the economic indicators with what the indicators is, when it was released, the latest number, whether that went up or down and whether or not it was statistically significant or not.

So, right off the bat, we're sort of educating users that aren't used to looking at this kind of stuff, how best to look at these things and whether or not there is actually a change. Very quickly they're able to get a piece of information and if they want to dive into it a little bit more, they can go into a more detailed view of the individual indicator and look at the trend line over the last 2 years. On this interactive graphic you're able to sort of explore the ups and downs of that individual indicator and see over time how it's been performing.

And then if you want to go a little bit deeper you can go directly into a historical, longitudinal database where some of these indicators go back over 20 years, in terms of looking at the data.

It provides quick, easy access to the information but also gives you touch points to get at more information if you want to. And some of the cool things that we like about the app is that you can actually integrate it with your personal calendar on your phone or tablet, you can set up notifications so that if you're interested in a particular indicator you can get push notifications or emails that the data has just come out.

And even more interesting, you can order the way they are displayed. So if you want to constantly look at just two or three of the indicators, you can put them up in the top. While we've ordered them in terms of the latest releases, you can go in as a user and change your settings to look at specific ones up top, so you don't have to look for them. And then of course this all integrates with being able to share it via email or on social media with Facebook and Twitter.

FierceMobileGovernment: I realize the app hasn't been out for long, but any findings in terms of downloads, or interest and feedback? You had an official launch event, maybe some feedback there?

Buckner: Yeah, we tried to give a demo. So, we went into the den where all the economic indicator reporters go into a lock up room. This is a tradition around some of the economic indicators where, they have to give up all the electronic devices and, because the information is so sensitive, because it moves markets that they're able to look at the data but they can't do anything with it until the actual release time. So, they are able to write their stories and they can file right as the numbers are formally released at a given time.

We went there to talk to people that knew the data the most and sort of preview it with them before we launched it, to sort of get initial reaction, to sort of showcase it. And we got a really good response from the people that were there. We did two different groups, one was on trade and the other one was on wholesale figures. And so they were actually able to see it update on the app, as well as start playing around with it and look at it from a user's perspective.

We kind of considered them expert users. They know what economic indicators are but they saw the utility in it very quickly. If they are not at their desk, it's hard to find out what the number is real quick, so if they're looking to work on the story they saw value in that.

Certainly, the reaction that we've seen from actual downloads--it's only Android at this point because of the delay it takes getting something into the iTunes store, there is a larger review process--but we've had over a hundred downloads already. We had ten reviews and I think we're averaging around 4.6 stars right now.

So it's getting really good reviews for the presentation of the statistics as well as the utility of them and the ease of use. Those are all things we tried to engineer this app around. So, we're really happy with it and we're going to continue to try to market it and I think it will grow over time.

The more and more people that start learning and hearing about it, and then certainly when we hit the Apple market we expect to have a lot more downloads at that point as well.

FMG: And I know that you also recently released an API around two of your high-value datasets. Does this app tap either of those APIs, or this is separate data?

Buckner: The API we released on July 26 and we're getting really good traffic on it. We've already given up over a thousand developer keys. People are signed up to access the API and so we've got a lot of traction on our developers forum site where you can ask us questions or post what you are working on and ask other developers questions. We're averaging about 57 calls per second, this was as of Monday [Aug. 6]. Over the weekend we had over 10 million calls. We're getting great traffic on it.

Two apps that we have coming out later this fall will leverage the APIs we've released,

This app utilizes the same type of technology [but not those APIs]. We're actually calling on it internally from one database to another to pull the data. So it's not a public API as much as it is an internal call on the database that stores all the economic indicator data.

It's using the same type of technology and sort of the same philosophy, that if you have open data and structured data you can do a lot of things with it and make it more readily accessible. We're certainly highlighting that with America's Economy, but the API that we released we will really be leveraging that for our apps this fall.

FMG: I'm curious about the app-building process at Census. I often hear that it's important to consult your stakeholders early on so people have input on how the data is presented, what data is presented, what is the priority for an app. Who are the stakeholders at Census and who did you work with to get the ball rolling on this?

Buckner: We had to ask, 'Should we be developing apps?' And I think that's a valid question that people should ask. Is it in the interest of the government to develop an app?

And we took the philosophy that we know our data very well and we should give a few examples in apps about the ways that our statistics can be used--whether from a business perspective or in your personal life--to sort of give other people ideas.

So we're not going to be in the app-building business. That's not what we do here at the Census Bureau. We collect statistical information and we analyze it, we produce it and disseminate it. This is part of that dissemination cycle, but we also see the value of being able--through the API and through these examples, whether they be a web app or a mobile app--to allow the innovators, the developers and other data users who want to take our data and do things with them.

So, we actually realized very quickly that there are a lot of more ideas outside the agency in terms of how the data can be used than inside. We're hoping to leverage that with just a few examples and then allow that creativity to take place. That's the key tenet of our philosophy around the apps.

The stakeholders, I think you have to look at, so you really need tell yourself, 'We're not going to just develop an app to develop an app.' What are the current trends of what people are looking at or using their mobile devices, tablets and smartphones for? So, we took a real good industry look at what are the most high-level things that people do.

So, one of the top things that people do with smartphones and mobile devices is that they access social media. The other thing that they do is a lot of games and gamification. And then the other one is maybe checking news. There's actually a long list out there that shows what behavior patterns are used.

We took a look at that and said, 'How do we take those behavior models on smartphones and tablets and engineer some apps that take advantage of those, what I call sweet spots?'

So, America's Economy is a very good market for us because it's core economic data that a lot of people don't know that we actually collect. We really have a lot of measures about the economy. So, that was good for getting that data out there. But more importantly, we also did a market analysis that showed that there weren't a lot of consumer-friendly mobile apps that presented our data in the way that we felt like we could present it, in a very user-friendly format, pulling directly from the source and ensuring the integrity of the data. That went definitely toward the core mission.

The other apps that we have planned are really going more towards that sweet spot of what are people looking for when they download an app. So, we're not going to just open up a fire hydrant and have somebody drink a few statistics. We're going to be a lot more subtle about it where they can explore statistics around them--whether it be the place that they live or within their personal community or the areas that they congregate or work in or live in--to be able to explore these statistics in a fun and meaningful way. And oh by the way, it's Census Bureau data. So, it's more of an afterthought but the we feel the real power in our statistics is just making the connection that they're all around you and how important they can be to know more about what's going on within your local community.

And then through that connection, as somebody does a survey or a Census taker comes to their door, perhaps they'll make that connection that, 'Oh, that's why you're asking some of this information, it helps my local community know this so that they can make these decisions.'

So it's all sort of a circle of life to some degree, but it is increasing the awareness about the statistics but not doing so in a heavy-handed manner.

FMG: This was Census' first mobile app. Do you have any dos or don'ts that you'd like to pass on to your peers at other agencies?

Buckner: I think I said this but don't just develop an app to develope an app. There are a lot of apps that are out there that are very useful and there are a lot more that aren't very useful. And I think that the government opens itself up to criticism when we seek to do things that don't make a lot of sense or deliver our customer expectations.

So, always have a customer-centric perspective as you're developing an app so that you're adding value to what they are looking for, not what you want to put out. If you take that sort of customer approach I think you'll find that you're more successful than not in terms of the reaction that you get from the public.

You know, we're entrusted with, by the public to spend their money effectively and efficiently, and making sure that whatever you're developing fits a need and it's something your customers have been asking for is going to put you in a much better position.

So, I think some of the dos: Consult with other agencies that have developed mobile apps about their pain points. You have to work hand in hand across the various offices within your own agency to ensure that you're presenting the data or information correctly. You have to be hand in hand with your CIO and IT area to look at things such as security, and making sure that the code is done appropriately so that the app performs in the right way. In the case of the census we had a contactor with a lot of experience where we were able to ask a lot of questions and gain a lot of expertise because we haven't done this before.

There's a lot of literature out there and a lot of information on best practices that agencies can read up on and try to perfect. And then I think the other thing you want to do is just go for it. With all these cautions, the ability to actually go out and try to do something that's really innovative is very rewarding.

Yes, there are some risks but if you follow some of the things that I've outlined already, in terms of being cautious and making sure that you look and validate your assumptions and we can come out in the end with a very good product and continue sort of pushing the envelope and reinventing the way that people see and interact with government.

FMG: You mentioned that the app was a collaborative effort, it wasn't just Census data. What's did the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics add to the effort? And, in addition to that, what was the collaboration like?

Buckner: Yeah. This was a great inter agency effort. The Census Bureau was going down the path and looking to do something on the economy but we realized we don't hold all the data about the economy.

We have a very large federal statistical system here in the U.S. and different agencies provide different statistics about what's going on in the economy. So, we quickly realized within the Department of Commerce, our sort of sister agency BEA, had some very good data that we could possibly talk to them about pulling in. And then we can't talk about the economy without talking about unemployment. So, we reached out to the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see if they would be willing to work with us on gaining access to their data.

So, it was easier for us to pull the data from our centralized system, our database and then we had to work through the challenges of going into two different agencies and working with them on the technology side to be able to pull that data into the format that we needed. The collaboration was really on that side in terms of them being able to provide their data in a format for us to be able to access for this particular app.

And certainly just giving them the chance to take a look at what we're doing in design and providing some input and then coordinating on a significant amount of user acceptance testing and we went through multiple sessions with multiple users going through and identifying things that we liked and needed to change and really building that into the process and being collaborative and open about it. I think it really reduced any angst that agencies had one way or another and the fact that we did this jointly and it's recognized in the app with all of our logos, I think is a model for other agencies. The public doesn't care what agency produces it, but when they look at the economy, they want to get a complete picture.

So, while we may not own all the data that the U.S. economy has, we hold a big chunk here at the Census Bureau and we recognize that there's more out there that we would like to pull in to America's Economy. But with this first iteration, we thought these 16 indicators give a very good look at the pulse of the U.S. economy and maybe with subsequent iterations we'd like to work with other agencies about pulling in additional data so that the public can continue to benefit from this open process that we've started here.

FMG: And I know you've said before but there is a backend, preliminary effort behind actually prepping the data before you can open it. Were you able to share with those agencies Census Bureau's experience with cleaning up the data and prepping it?

Buckner: They were pretty well off in terms of how they had their data structured. There were some minor tweaks that had to be made just in terms of how the app and how our database would need to pull the data in to present it to the user. So, there weren't a lot of headaches associated with that. Once we got the systems aligned where they could actually talk to each other, then it really started producing a lot faster.

So, there were few hiccups here and there but for the most part the data went pretty well and in terms of aligning our IT folks with their IT folks in order to make sure we were able to pull exactly what we needed to pull in the format that we needed.

FMG: You mentioned earlier that you don't want to be in the business of making apps. So, where do you see the apps effort going from here? You're releasing more apps in the fall. What's the next step?

Buckner: We're following the business model that has been very successful in the private sector. You come up with a product, you give customers an idea of what the product can do and you turn it over to them to make enhancements. This worked for Apple, with their iPhones. They launched a product with a few apps on it in a closed environment and then opened it up and said, 'Ok developers, what kind of apps would you develop?' And over a million apps later, here we are talking about apps in the government.

So, the same type of mentality applies here. There's a lot of innovation that takes place outside the government, a lot of creativity that can take place. We just want to make sure we're able to present the statistics and provide them in a format in which this innovation can take place.

We want to be the platform. The apps we're developing serve as examples of some of the things which you can do with Census statistics while at the same time engaging and helping them to see statistics in a more user friendly way. So we really feel like the suite of apps we're creating will give users good ideas that they may have more ideas around. And then we'll try to turn that over to them and see what they can do.

So we're talking about having an app challenge down the road. And [we're] talking about doing some codeathons and hackathons, where you take the API that we built--and oh by the way, we're going to start trying to figure out how quickly you can continually add additional data on to that API.

So, there's a lot of ways that we can continue this conversation with developers and users to enhance our data products. To enhance the way we do business, but also to give them the opportunity to shape how we do business.

FMG: Those are all the questions I had. Is there anything else that you'd like to touch upon?

Buckner: It's really exciting because this is a vision that's finally coming true and we're really starting to catch our wave here, so to speak. The federal digital strategy has a lot of deadlines that are associate with it and I think the Census Bureau is leading.

We've been working with GSA's customer area that's being set up and certainly they're giving us some advice here and there. And we look forward to staying on the cutting edge and trying to connect with our users.

So we really kind of feel like, whether it be the app or API or overall changes that we're going to be making to the web over the next 6 months--We'll be standing up a brand new CMS. We'll be enhancing our analytic capability. We'll be improving our search and our navigation to allow users to get answers when they search rather than just links--much like the experience that you get when you search one of the browsers now, either Google or Bing, you get actually answers. So, we want to get to the point to where customers can come here, they can navigate the site and really just search and find what they're looking for very easily, in a timely manner and they can get back to what they are doing.

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