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Feds tap Zillow’s chief economist for open-data initiative

By March 6, 2015 One Comment

Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries has been named to an advisory panel that the federal government says will help it do a better job unleashing vast troves of data to foster economic growth and promote better decision-making — including census data served up by real estate search sites.

Humphries, creator of the controversial Zestimate, is one of 19 data experts chosen to serve on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Data Advisory Council. Other members include Intel CIO Kim Stevenson, IBM Chief Information Strategist Steve Adler, LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue and eBay big data scientist Vadim Kutsyy.

The advisory council — and a new “chief data officer” position within the Commerce Department — is the outgrowth of a June 2014 Open Data Roundtable that included two dozen representatives from the private sector and nonprofit organizations.

A roundtable report issued last fall outlined private sector recommendations for improving the Commerce Department’s data management practices, including increasing the speed of downloading large Census Bureau data sets, and making data “more complete, representative, and ‘clean,’ reducing noise and inaccuracy within data sets.”

The report, “Realizing The Potential of Open Government Data,” recommended that the Census Bureau publish data “at a more granular geographic level (where possible), with easy-to-use geographic crosswalks. For instance, the American Community Survey could produce data at the block level, and deal with privacy issues possibly by masking individuals or inviting them to opt in.”

Another Commerce Department report published last summer, “Fostering Innovation, Creating Jobs, Driving Better Decisions: The Value of Government Data,” documented Trulia and Zillow’s use of census data.

That report noted that Zillow provides local and national demographics data from the 2000 Decennial Census, “including data on relationship status, homes with children, age distribution, median household income, percent population that consists of single males and single females, median age, average household size, and average commute time compared with national numbers.”

Using segmentation methods based on 2000 Decennial Census data, Zillow also reports on a locality’s “main types of people,” the report noted.

Last fall, however, Zillow stopped publishing much of the demographic data previously found on the site. At the time, a spokeswoman for the company said it was waiting for the Census Bureau to update the data served up on those pages.

Zillow believes that free and open access to data of all kinds can only help empower the people that use it, Humphries said in a blog post announcing his appointment to the Data Advisory Council.

“Supporting the Commerce Department’s efforts to open up more data in order to empower more Americans, and to do it thoughtfully and creatively with help from the best and the brightest this country has to offer, is a no-brainer for us,” he said.

“The balanced perspective gained from this new advisory council, and the varied expertise I and my fellow advisers can bring to the table, can’t help but result in meaningful progress in how this nation creates, maintains and makes use of its growing data resources.”

Humphries and Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff recently co-authored a book, “Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate,” that mines data Zillow has assembled over the years to challenge some of the industry’s most commonly held beliefs.

Humphries, who is also a member of Fannie Mae’s Affordable Housing Advisory Council, will serve a two-year term on the Commerce Data Advisory Council. He will not be compensated other than per diem and travel expenses.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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