Unlocking the Power of Government’s Open Data for Small Businesses

Dr Tyrone Grandison
8 min readJun 27, 2015

Jack Bienko, Tyrone Grandison, Logan T Powell

On the National Day of City Hacking, the Small Business Administration (SBA) continued to make steps innovating for small businesses using the Federal government’s open data assets.

Partnering with the US CENSUS Bureau, BusinessUSA, the U.S. Department of Labor, CHIEF, GovLoop, e-Management, Fosterly, DC’s Department of Small and Local Business Development, Microsoft, OpenIDEO DC, and General Assembly, the SBA hosted over ninety (90) civic hackers at a hackathon to help small businesses; at Chief’s headquarters in DC.

Doing The Homework

A few days prior to the event, a focus group of small businesses based in Washington DC was convened and the business owners were asked to openly and candidly articulate their perceptions and needs with regards to open data from the government.

One attendee remarked “Open data (from the government) has never been uttered in our office. We don’t really think about open data sets”. This is quite rational when you consider that small business owners (SBOs) are working long hours, most times sixty hour weeks, selling their products and trying to stay afloat. However, it was very useful to get this feedback firsthand.

Their perception of government was more as a constraint rather than as a helpful aide in their success. Taxes, regulation and paperwork tend not to be viewed positively by a SBO who is knee-deep in trying to survive and make a profit. Additionally, given their past interactions with the government, they assume that interacting with governmental open data will be difficult and unpleasant.

Another small business owner said “We don’t really look at any data. We don’t go online…. We drive around a location we might be interested in, during the busiest dinner time. We’ll park there and watch the foot traffic for a couple of hours.

After hours of conversation, it became clear that there are many ways that small businesses need help. However, they may not currently be primary consumers of open data. Rather, it would be more helpful to them if the government made it clear what data is available and how it can be used.

The Challenge

The focus group uncovered three core questions that the team knew they had to address at the hackathon:

  1. How does open data get noticed by SBOs (e.g., partners, channels)?
  2. How does the government curate open data so that it is more relevant to small business needs (e.g., hyperlocal data/regulations)?
  3. How does the government make open data extremely usable/actionable for SBOs (e.g., formats)?

From the discovery session, the team was also able to identify four initial personas that the small businesses in attendance identified with:

  1. Independent, Brick-and-Mortar Goods and Services
  2. Hyperlocal and or Mobile Worker
  3. Partnership-dependent, Local Specialty Goods Producer
  4. Local Business Improvement and Empowerment Administrator

Independent, Brick-and-Mortar Goods and Services

Tim and his family have owned a Vietnamese grocery in Columbia Heights since the 1990s. They have gone through times of lean and plenty as the population moved in and out of their neighborhood.

In 2012, business was so robust that they decided to open a new location. With the help of a customer, who was a real estate agent, they were able to find a neighborhood in Adams Morgan with similar demographics and vibrant traffic. They found their new location by manually researching potential areas and physically observing foot traffic.

Tim and his family are representative of this persona, which also includes restaurateurs, hardware store owners, acupuncturists, yoga instructors, florists, and auto/bike/computer repair professionals. This persona’s primary channel is direct sales and their open data needs include:

  • Locating customers: Within a delivery/access radius, Specific residential unit types (e.g., multi/single-family residential).
  • Targeting markets (i.e., Concentrations of Potential Customers): Specific demographics and population densities (e.g., foot traffic), Specific labor markets.
  • Differentiating themselves from the competition: Product and service selections

Hyperlocal and or Mobile Worker

Chaz and his family have owned a food truck business for over thirty-five (35) years. Over the last few years, food trucks have exploded in numbers — leading to a highly competitive landscape. This explosion has precipitated new regulations, increased competition, and a shrinking pool of legal spots.

Chaz relies primarily on personal observations and experience to make his business decisions. His primary customers are tourists and his most profitable locations are near the National Mall. He would like to go wherever the tourists are. Unfortunately, there are only 100 spots for more than 1,000 vendors. Chaz mostly relies on personal observations and experience to make his business decisions.

Apart from food trucks, ice cream trucks and hot dog or street food stands also fall into this persona. This persona’s main channel is direct sales and their open data needs include:

  • Locating Customers: They need fresh/real-time data on where customers are, They need to find more events, Events add to revenue streams (beyond primary business locations), They need to avoid traffic, They need to see where DC’s population is most dense.

Partnership-dependent, Local Specialty Goods Producer

Van’s business really started scaling in 2012 with a partnership with Whole Foods. In 2014, his business also started distributing in Target. His demographic is primarily female (25–50). He states “Moms care about my products”.

As a startup, he is constantly putting out fires. He doesn’t have a lot of time to ponder what ‘open data’ he can find. It’s all about traction, growing and taking the next step. However, he thought that anyone in his capacity would use Federal data if they knew what data the government has and was able to quickly understand how it can benefit their business and the country.

SBOs with boutique beauty products, local farmers, craftspeople, commercial bakeries, caterers, specialized consultants, and real estate agents also fall into this persona. This persona’s primary channel is through partners and their open data needs include information on:

  • Where to Build Brand: Specific demographics/ population densities, Labor market characteristics (employees), Business patterns/characteristics (employers).

Local Business Improvement and Empowerment Administrator

Entities in this persona include Main Street Improvement Corridors, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Enterprise and Empowerment Zones’ Administrators. Their main channels are advocacy, assistance, and investment. Their open data needs include information on:

  • Where to focus Investment
  • How to support Local Business Owners

The team combined the initial core questions with the small business personas to create the context and drive the mission of the National Day of Civic Hacking event.

Taking Action

On the National Day of Civic Hacking, the SBA asked for the civic hacking community’s assistance in creating solutions that would directly help small business personas find and utilize government’s open data.

The participants answered the call and delivered six initial solutions: the Gender Disparity Map, DC Data Smoothie, Specialty EBiz, Brick and Mortar, Chicken Little, and HyperLocal.

The Gender Disparity Map

This team used demographic and occupation data from the American Community Survey (ACS), via CitySDK, to identify states with disproportionately large numbers of one gender representing a variety of S.T.E.M. related occupations.

DC Data Smoothie

This team’s mission was to help local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) within DC understand the composition of their constituency.

They achieved this by creating a map that leverages CitySDK to send custom (DC BID) boundary requests for all nested block-groups and displays the ACS data for the selected area(s).

Specialty EBiz

This team wanted to solve the following problems faced by a local specialty business owner — “How do I use open data to identify areas that have a high density of likely clients that meet certain criteria or fit a certain cohort?”

They used ACS data, via CitySDK, to build a novel multi-step mapping algorithm, which allows the user to combine multiple ACS variables by filtering higher level, and then nested, geographies that contain different criteria.

Brick and Mortar

This project used open data to maximize the number of customers who come through a company’s doors. They combined meetup information with ACS demographics, from CitySDK, to help businesses dynamically manage their operations based on their current open data indicators in their environment. For example, adjusting opening hours based on commute times, maximizing supplies based on meetups nearby, and increasing inventory based on community demographics.

Chicken Little

Chicken Little is a data visualization using CitySDK, USDA QuickStats and the APHIS avian flu data to show the effects of the avian flu across the United States.

The USDA hopes to distribute Chicken Little’s data to support Small Farmers in their efforts to protect their businesses.


Team HyperLocal focused on the issue of how do food truck owners know where to go if they don’t have a permitted long-term parking space.

Their solution leveraged DC transit information and meetup information to find high-traffic areas.

Next Steps

Small businesses are the lifeblood of the American economy.

Please consider using the resources here to develop more solutions for small businesses.

Actively engage with the Small Business Administration by contacting John J Bienko at John.Bienko@sba.gov.



Dr Tyrone Grandison

Techie, Data Enthusiast, Privacy Advocate, Security Nerd. Social Justice Geek. Well-Rounded Human Being.