April 15, 2014

The Final DATA Act: Here's What It Means, Here's What It'll Do

A bright, frequently-used metaphor rises in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)
Sweeping change and open data are dawning for U.S. federal spending.

On Thursday the U.S. Senate passed the DATA Act -- unanimously. In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor has signaled that he intends to bring the Senate bill through to final passage without changes. The House has passed the DATA Act twice already, so it seems likely that this bill will soon be on President Obama's desk for his approval or veto.

We expect President Obama will join a unanimous Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the tech industry, all of the major nonprofit transparency advocacy groups and open data advocates from across the spectrum -- and sign the DATA Act.

No further changes are expected. Nearly three years after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) first introduced it, we now know what the final DATA Act will look like.

So, what does this final bill mean? What will happen after it becomes law? On April 29, two weeks from today, the Congressional sponsors and executive branch implementers of the DATA Act will gather at the Data Transparency Summit to explore those questions. Join us if you are interested in the transformation of federal spending!

In advance of the Summit, here's our summary of the final bill--and our first preview of a post-DATA world.

From the beginning, the core of the DATA Act has been comprised of twin mandates to (1) adopt data standards across the whole landscape of federal spending and (2) publish the whole corpus online.
Data standards bring disconnected reporting regimes together. The Senate sponsors resisted strong pressure to water down the crucial data standards section. The final language is expressed in a new Section 4 being added to the existing Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA). Treasury and the White House's Office of Management and Budget, acting together, "shall establish Government-wide financial data standards for any Federal funds made available to or expended by Federal agencies and entities receiving Federal funds." This is a broad, powerful, and comprehensive mandate.
What data standards are Treasury and OMB going to establish? The final DATA Act requires them to adopt "common data elements for financial and payment information required to be reported by Federal agencies and [by] entities receiving Federal funds." This is an invitation to transform the whole disconnected landscape of federal spending reports: financial, payment, and budget reporting by agencies and accountability reporting by grantees and contractors.

Can we be more specific about what data standards will be set up? Yes. Congress does not force Treasury and OMB to establish any particular identifier or format, but it does make its preferences clear. The data standards to be established must "incorporate a widely-accepted, nonproprietary, searchable, platform-independent computer readable format" and "include unique identifiers for Federal awards and entities receiving Federal awards that can be consistently applied Government-wide." This language favors XML, XBRL, and the Legal Entity Identifier, but it doesn't permanently impose those standards.
Federal spending is published for public scrutiny, consistent with the Obama Open Data Policy. The Senate sponsors refused to dilute the DATA Act's publication requirement. The final language requires everything the executive branch spends, with carve-outs for classified information and information that would not be revealed in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request, to be published on USASpending.gov -- at least on the appropriations account level. You'll find this language in the new section 3(b) of FFATA.

The government must eat its own standardized dog food. New paragraph 4(c)(3) of FFATA requires that USASpending.gov must publish federal spending information using the same data standards that Treasury and OMB will establish. And new paragraph 2(c)(7) requires the data published on USASpending.gov to conform to principles set by President Obama's May 2013 Open Data Policy.

The DATA Act has never covered the judicial or legislative branches. We'll have to keep advocating truly comprehensive federal spending transparency.

What are Congress' goals? They explain! The Senate sponsors added new language at the beginning of the bill expressing Congress' purposes in passing this law. For the first time, government-wide data standards are an explicit purpose of the bill (item 2). For the first time, Congress says (in item 5) that it intends to expand the Recovery Board's successful accountability platform to cover all government spending, which was a key goal of the first version of the DATA Act.

Inspectors general keep 'em honest. So do we.  The final bill requires the inspector general of each agency and the Government Accountability Office to audit the quality of spending data reported by each agency--and that agency's use of data standards. That's in new Section 6 of FFATA.

And Treasury and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must consult with public-sector and private-sector stakeholders as they establish the new data standards. Who are the private-sector stakeholders? These organizations make a pretty good starting list.


The text of the final DATA Act makes it clear where open data supporters must concentrate their advocacy over the next few years.

Treasury and OMB become the odd couple of data standards. One of the goals of the original DATA Act was to put one entity in charge of data standards for federal spending, government-wide. The final bill does not do this. Instead, it makes Treasury and OMB jointly responsible. This joint authority will make progress more difficult, but not impossible. Outside encouragement can help make sure the work gets done. Our Coalition will encourage supporters of open data in both Treasury and the White House to engage with one another. Congress will hold hearings on DATA Act implementation to provide air support.

Deadlines creep backward. Most deadlines have been moved backward in the final bill. Supporters of open data will have to be patient and stay engaged. Here's the timetable.
  • Treasury and OMB have one year after enactment to issue guidance on government-wide data standards. (This deadline has not moved.)
  • Agencies have two years, rather than one, after the guidance is issued to report spending information consistently with the data standards.
  • USASpending.gov must publish all federal spending data, expressed using the data standards, three years after enactment, rather than one.
Payment-level disclosure isn't required. The final bill does not directly mandate the disclosure of spending at the payment level. Treasury has separately promised this (details here), and payment-level disclosure would be consistent with the broad publication mandate, but supporters of open data will need to advocate separately for this necessary reform.

Mandatory data standards in grant and contract reporting? Probably maybe. Previous versions of the DATA Act directly required agencies to begin using the government-wide data standards for the reports they receive from grantees and contractors, no later than two years after enactment. The final bill makes the pathway to standardized recipient reporting a great deal more complicated.
Starting one year after enactment, OMB, or an agency it designates, must run a pilot program on the consolidation of grant and contract reporting. That pilot program will terminate two years later (or three years after enactment). See new Section 5 of FFATA. Ninety days after the pilot program finishes, OMB must report to Congress on how grant and contract reporting could be consolidated. One year after that, acting on insights from the pilot program and the report, OMB must issue guidance to the heads of Federal agencies as to how the Government-wide data standards shall be applied to grant and contract reporting.
Thus, we will probably not see a direct government-wide mandate for data standards in grant and contract reporting until four years plus ninety days after enactment. That's several eternities in politics. We'll have a new Presidential administration and a new OMB with new priorities. Standardized recipient reporting will not happen without steady advocacy by our Coalition and other supporters, every step of the way.

But there is reason to hope. The strong data standards mandate requires Treasury and OMB, right away, to start working on data standards for information "required to be reported ... [by] entities receiving Federal funds" (new Section 4 of FFATA). That means, assuming Treasury and OMB do their job, that the necessary data standards will be ready to go, and available for voluntary adoption, even if not mandatory for some time.
The Recovery Board's accountability platform survives, sort of. Our Coalition has called on Congress to preserve the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board's accountability platform and extend it to cover all federal spending. You'll find our arguments here.
The final DATA Act gives the Secretary of the Treasury an option whether to establish an accountability platform within the Treasury Department. See new subsection 6(c) of FFATA. If the Secretary of the Treasury decides to do that, all assets of the Recovery Board are to be transferred to the Treasury.


Though it presents challenges and complications, the DATA Act is the most powerful government transparency mandate since Congress passed the Freedom of Information Action 1966. It's also the first-ever legislative mandate for open data. The Coalition is ready to start assisting the executive branch in implementation, persuading Congress to stay engaged through hearings and oversight. We're ready to rally the tech industry to create the solutions that will use standardized data to change government and society.

That all starts two weeks from today at the Data Transparency Summit. Join us and take part in the transformation of federal spending!

April 11, 2014

Coming to the Data Transparency Summit: explore how DATA standards will automate grant reporting!

This guest blog post by Tom Grimes, director of public sector sales at StreamLink Software, explains how the DATA Act may mean lower compliance costs for federal grantees. StreamLink supports the Data Transparency Coalition's advocacy as a Regular Member and is hosting the compliance track at the Data Transparency Summit on April 29th. For more details on how StreamLink's solutions will use DATA Act standards to automate compliance, join us at the Summit!

The DATA Act promises to transform federal spending through comprehensive data standards. Once federal financial reports, budget actions, performance metrics, contract disclosures, and grant reports are electronically cross-searchable, citizens will have access to the information they need to hold their government accountable and federal agencies will deploy Big Data Analytics to find and stop waste and fraud. 
But what will be the impact on state and local governments and other recipients of federal grants? Grant recipients often struggle to deal when complicated reporting challenges. Under the DATA Act, the federal government will prescribe standard data formats for these existing reporting requirements. StreamLink Software, a member of the Data Transparency Coalition, believes that standard data formats will allow grantees to automate their compliance tasks--saving time and money for the work the grants were intended to fund in the first place. StreamLink Software published its vision for better grant reporting in a white paper (PDF) last year. 
How can grantees grab this savings? By being proactive, even before the new data formats are adopted. States, local governments, and other grantees should integrate their grant management now so that their federal reporting burdens can shrink later, through automation.
StreamLink Software is also supporting the goal of data transparency at the state and local level, including in their home state of Ohio. The DataOhio Initiative aims to bring process efficiencies, accountability, and economic growth through comprehensive data reform throughout Ohio government agencies. Automation, especially in the form of grants compliance and reporting, will be a key part of this initiative to improve the flow of machine-readable data.
The StreamLink Software compliance panel at the Data Transparency Summit on April 29th will illuminate how. We've invited the leading innovators in state-level grants management to share best practices and explain how they are preparing for the DATA Act. 
Grantees should also share their views with the federal leaders who will be implementing the DATA Act. Those leaders--members of Congress and their staffs, key staff at the Treasury Department and at the Department of Health and Human Services--will be attending the Summit too. Come meet them! 
AmpliFund, the StreamLink Software grant management solution, is capable of tracking grant activities and funding through every stage of the grant lifecycle. From identifying opportunities in grant funding to grant distributions to sub-recipients to performance and financial reporting that meets the latest data requirements, AmpliFund Public Sector maximizes an organization’s resources by minimizing its effort.
Through the DATA Act, Congress is legislating data transparency not just for public accountability and better federal management, but for the automation of grant compliance as well. Join us on April 29th to learn more.

April 10, 2014

Tech Industry Applauds Senate DATA Act Passage

  Landmark Open Data Legislation to Overhaul Federal Spending Transparency
WASHINGTON, DC -- The United States Senate approved an amended version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (S. 994) today by unanimous consent. Advocates expect the landmark open data legislation, known as the DATA Act, to earn swift approval in the U.S. House of Representatives, where an earlier iteration of the bill passed by a 388-1 vote in November 2013. The DATA Act would mandate the publication of all federal spending disclosures as standardized open data. In many cases, that information is currently locked behind inaccessible document-based formats.

"The DATA Act takes a structured data model that has delivered unprecedented accountability in stimulus expenditures and applies it across all domains of federal spending," said Hudson Hollister, who helped draft the initial version of the DATA Act in 2011 and now champions the bill as the Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition. "We're excited to welcome this bipartisan — and now, bicameral — endorsement for delivering reliable, accessible data about how taxpayers’ dollars are being spent. The DATA Act will turn federal spending information into open spending data – a valuable new public resource that strengthens democratic accountability and spurs innovation."

The Senate’s final version of the DATA Act places the White House Office of Management and Budget alongside the U.S. Treasury Department in joint control of the development of government-wide data standards, a change opposed by the Data Transparency Coalition. However, the final bill retains the Coalition’s key goals:  strong and comprehensive mandates to standardize and publish the executive branch’s whole portfolio of spending information. The final bill also invites the Treasury Department to set up an accountability platform modeled on the innovations of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the DATA Act, because it provides a legislative mandate for many elements of his May 2013 Open Data Policy.

"The DATA Act is part of the growing trend by governments to embrace structured, machine-readable data formats in place of documents for regulatory reporting," said Matthew Rizai, CEO and Managing Director of WebFilings, which became an Executive Member of the Data Transparency Coalition in 2013. "The move to reporting data instead of filing documents has made it possible to achieve efficiencies by automating compliance reporting."

"The establishment of government-wide data standards for spending will allow federal agencies to deploy analytics to identify and eliminate waste and fraud," said Bob Fair, Executive Vice President of Teradata, which became the Coalition’s founding member in February 2012. "The DATA Act's mandate will speed a long-overdue transformation from disconnected documents into open, useful data – a transformation that will help the federal government better serve taxpayers. And we know this based on our experience helping large organizations across industries, including state and federal agencies, transform their organizations to improve efficiencies."

The DATA Act's main Senate sponsors, Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH), will join with the bill's most outspoken champion in the House, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), along with key executive branch officials at the Coalition’s Data Transparency Summit on April 29 in Washington, DC. Tech sector innovators and open data advocates will work with these leaders to build a shared vision for the bill's implementation. The Summit is presented by PwC. The Information Technology Industry Council, represented by President and CEO Dean Garfield, will co-host as a Special Policy Partner.

April 8, 2014

Top GAO official says DATA Act passage 'single biggest thing' Congress can do to identify wasteful spending

GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro
In testimony delivered today before the House Oversight Committee, Gene Dodaro, who serves as the Comptroller General at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), called for Congressional action on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) to enable the proper tracking of federal spending information. Dodaro spoke about a GAO report released this morning that identified several new programs considered to be wasteful or otherwise duplicative.

Dodaro, who is the GAO's highest ranking official, said that "the DATA Act is
one of the single biggest things you could do" to help identify and eliminate these wasteful programs. "It would standardize the data so you could compare the data across agencies -- which you can't do now."

"One of the most troubling things in GAO's report is the number of agencies that have no idea just how much taxpayer money they are spending on their programs," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), in an interview with USA TODAY ahead of the hearing.

The Comptroller General's remarks come as the Senate is said to be very close to passing its version of the DATA Act. An earlier House version of the bill, sponsored by House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Issa and Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), passed the lower chamber 388-1 in November 2013.

"Right now, you don't really have data standards at all," said Dodaro in response to a question at the hearing about how the DATA Act would improve data standards over time. 

He went on to add that the DATA Act would require the Treasury Department in particular to "work with stakeholders both inside and outside government" to establish comprehensive government-wide data standards.

"I think effective oversight by the Congress is absolutely necessary," said Dodaro in response to a question about how to make sure the DATA Act can ultimately deliver to its fullest potential. 

"There are a lot of tools in place," Dodaro continued, "and if you get the DATA Act, you'll have the information -- and it's basically just rolling up your sleeves to get the work done properly."

Rep. Issa will join with Senate DATA Act sponsors, administration officials, open data advocates and innovators at the Data Transparency Summit on April 29th in Washington, DC. The summit will work towards a common vision for implementing open data mandates like the DATA Act at all levels of government.

April 4, 2014

Does Columbia Business School study show investors aren't using structured corporate financial data? No, says its co-author.

Supporters of H.R. 4164, which would exempt most U.S. public companies from the obligation to file their financial statements in the XBRL structured data format, have frequently cited a landmark January 2013 study by Columbia Business School's Center for Excellence in Accounting and Security Analysis as evidence that investors aren't using this data set. Dr. Suzanne Morsfield, co-author of the study, responds in this guest blog post.

Thank you  for your interest in my thoughts about how our study has been used recently in connection with H.R. 4164.  I was surprised to learn that a study I co-authored was being cited by various stakeholders to H.R. 4164 (the Bill) as evidence to support its passage. To my knowledge, no one citing the study for this purpose has contacted either of the paper's co-authors to find out our views, or more simply, to confirm with us whether the quotes from our paper are indeed accurate. The study, "An Evaluation of Current State and Future of XBRL and Interactive Data for Investors and Analysts," was released by Columbia Business School's Center for Excellence in Accounting and Security Analysis (CEASA) in December of 2012.  While I do not wish to enter into the politics of the bill, I would like to note a few key things from the study for consideration. Any views expressed are solely my own, unless I am quoting directly from the paper.
Dr. Suzanne Morsfield: Investors demand structured data.

1. Most investors are using structured data through data vendors, not directly. The statistic in our study doesn't reflect indirect use. The quote I am aware of that has been used to support the Bill is a misquote, most likely by accident, and, as such, does not convey the full views of the paper with respect to the importance of machine-readable, interactive data to all types of capital markets investors and analysts. The possible misquote (presuming it is taken from our study) in a recent press release from BIO, for example, states "A recent study of investors across all sectors of the market found that 92% of investors do not consider data from XBRL reports when making investment decisions." Our paper actually states “Of our sample, few (8%) analyst/investors are utilizing XBRL data directly from the SEC website/RSS feed or other direct sources….those using XBRL data are using it for the perceived informational advantage they have by having interactive access to certain types of data that they believe they cannot collect elsewhere with the same effectiveness and efficiency. This [8%] measures whether they are using XBRL directly, as opposed to a data vendor’s product with XBRL-supplied data in it."  Various data vendors are using XBRL data in their respective financial data subscriptions, and the statistic in our study does not reflect the number of investors utilizing XBRL data indirectly. The study also does not necessarily reflect current usage numbers.

2. Investors want more structured data, not less.  The users of financial reports we surveyed and interviewed also conveyed to us that they wanted more, not less machine-readable, interactive SEC filings and other data.  In the paper, we summarized this input as follows: "The core finding is that there is clear demand for timely, structured, machine-readable data including information in financial reports, and that this need can be met via XBRL as long as the XBRL-tagged data can reduce the total processing costs of acquiring and proofing the data, and that the data are easily integrated (mapped) into current processes."

3. Investors want the SEC to fully enforce XBRL data quality--and transform more of its filings from documents to structured data. Investors and analysts further told us that they also would like the SEC to enforce the XBRL rule so that they as users can rely on these data more fully, and that they would like more SEC filings data "tagged" than currently were at the time of our study.  We stated in the paper, "there is demand for interactive data that captures the information in the footnote, MD&A, or earnings release data. However, this is generally pent-up demand due to current data quality and usability concerns." In fact, 89.4% of those in our sample who knew about XBRL-tagged filings conveyed that they would be interested in utilizing these XBRL data once their respective concerns were addressed.

On a very personal note, I would like to add that I have spoken with my family members about our study, XBRL, the SEC's machine-readable data efforts and status, and other related topics at length (and yes, they still want to see me when I come into town). I have four siblings, and parents who celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary in November.  Although "investors and analysts" can seem like dirty words in some circles, as opposed to "entrepreneurs and business owners," each of my hard-working family members is an investor and analyst to some degree because of their 401k plans and other retirement savings--the stay-at-home mom, the retired quality-control engineer, the CEO of a biotech company, the engineer at a defense contractor, the high school special education teacher, the single mom business manager of a nephrology practice, and finally, the researcher/former auditor/former equity analyst/former professor/former controller of a high tech start-up preparing for an IPO. With that in mind, and although I have been a transparent critic of many aspects of the SEC's XBRL implementation and of ineffective financial reporting requirements, I do not support any exemptions to providing public regulatory data in a machine-readable format. This is especially true both in light of the decreasing costs of doing so reported by filers themselves in a recent FEI study, the increasing consumption tools now available, and of the proportion of Accounting and Audit Enforcement Releases to date that relate to filers with less than $250m in revenue in the years leading up to the enforcement actions. I cannot currently foresee a case whereby companies should not provide machine-readable data to the SEC and investors of all types and sizes, regardless of company size or industry, especially if these same companies also consider themselves capable and responsible enough to raise capital in the U.S. public markets.

4. In the 21st century, disclosure should be digital, not documents.  Finally, the paper addresses whether machine-readable regulatory filings would be important regardless of investor use: "Even if issuer-tagged XBRL data were not being consumed en masse by investors and analysts because they had found other, equally relevant, and more reliable data in the meantime, the usefulness of these data to regulators and enforcement/compliance agencies is a likely and potentially desired outcome. That is, digital filing of regulator-required information with filer-tagging is not an unreasonable societal expectation in the 21st century."

April 3, 2014

Coming to the Data Transparency Summit: Socrata's Financial Transparency Apps!

This guest blog post by Safouen Rabah, Socrata's Vice President of Product, introducing Socrata's new financial transparency apps, is adapted from the original here. Socrata supports the Data Transparency Coalition's advocacy as a Regular Member and will be a co-host at the Data Transparency Summit on April 29th. For more details on how Socrata's new financial transparency apps could open up federal spending, join us at the Summit!

Five years ago, any government who made the choice to join the open data movement was seen as innovative. Now, publishing data is the gold standard of open government, but it must be more than a line item government leaders cross off their transparency checklist. While publishing data publicly is a great start to making the most of the data collected, it’s also just the first step. In order for open data programs to have significant impact, the smartest governments publish raw data and provide ways citizens need to understand and use that data. This includes visualization tools, APIs to remix and reuse data in multiple contexts, and citizen-friendly apps to engage people in government processes.

Why Financial Transparency Matters

Financial transparency apps demystify government finances and expand the conversation around budgets and spending. These apps bolster public participation in governance. Government cannot call itself transparent just because it published a ledger of raw data, as few citizens understand how to consume financial data. Furthermore, many citizens are hungry to understand this data. Financial transparency demonstrates serious commitment to open government. A citizen armed with information about the budget is a citizen able to ask the right questions and understand her government’s priorities.

In evaluating the apps that already exist for government finances, our team found none that truly helped people understand how budgets and spending work. We realized that most apps were not built for everyday citizens to use.To help government meet the needs and demands of its citizens, we set out to build a suite of financial transparency apps that examine government finances from the citizen perspective. We created two specific apps to address financial transparency. The first, Socrata Open Budget™, allows citizens to understand everything that goes into a government’s budget. The second, Socrata Open Spending™, shows citizens how the government is spending funds.

Socrata Open Budget

Socrata Open Budget helps citizens and other stakeholders understand the operating budget, capital budget, capital projects, and the priorities of government. For example, a citizen curious about public safety budgeting can drill down into the funds allocated for Police, Fire, and Rescue and, from there, get specifics on the source of those funds. The app allows users to follow the lifecycle of the budgeting process. Budgeting is a multi-phase process that can be confusing to the average citizen. Socrata Open Budget provides a snapshot of the budget, where it’s been, and what’s happening next. How does this level of budget transparency benefit citizens? A citizen armed with information about the budget is a citizen able to ask the right questions and understand the priorities of government. Engaged citizens, journalists, and other stakeholders demand this data.

When designing these financial transparency tools, Socrata worked closely with the technology and finance teams at Montgomery County, Maryland to learn about government budget and spending data practices. Socrata and Montgomery County also obtained feedback from members of the County’s local community to ensure their objective of empowering the public with financial data was met.
“We worked with Socrata to make sure we could educate citizens about how we budget and spend as we empower them with data. The apps are designed to move visitors through the entire budgeting process in an engaging way. All of the data is shown in dynamic charts and made interactive. It flows in a way that makes very complex information easy to understand,” says dataMontgomery Project Manager Victoria Lewis.

Socrata Open Spending

Government spending is another area that can be confusing to citizens. Because citizens care about where their money is spent, conversations around government spending can be volatile, especially when spending is unclear. Smart governments committed to serving citizens have a strong incentive to help taxpayers understand spending. Governments also have an opportunity to help sophisticated data consumers, such as journalists and business owners, understand the data. Socrata Open Spending helps fulfill this mission by presenting spending data in a detailed, understandable way.

With Socrata Open Spending, citizens can explore government spending to where funds are allocated. For example, a user can view the relative amount spent on park maintenance, public art, school buses, and more. Citizens can also explore trends in spending over time, browse the data by government vendor to see which companies are hired by their government (for example, if their city hires the same firm for both road construction and maintenance), and browse the spending by specific payment to see the details around payments to vendors. This app also benefits businesses by offering insight into how their competitors are serving the government. Ultimately, this app recognizes that citizens have the right to see how the government spends their money in a format they can understand, regardless of financial expertise.

Learn More: Attend Our Webinar

Socrata’s suite of financial transparency apps expand the conversation around budgets and spending, and will bolster public participation in governance. These apps are designed to be meaningful to all audiences, ensuring all stakeholders will be able to understand where the money comes from, how it is allocated, and where it’s going. Making these apps available to citizens demonstrates a government’s commitment to transparency and openness.

To learn more, register for our webinar on April 16th, during which we will demonstrate each of these apps.

Learn Even More: Visit Us at the Data Transparency Summit

Socrata is a member of the Data Transparency Coalition and a co-host of the Data Transparency Summit on April 29th. The Summit will bring together leaders from Congress and the executive branch to explore the transformation of federal spending from disconnected documents to open data.

How might Socrata's financial transparency apps be deployed on the federal level? Join us on April 29th to find out.


March 28, 2014

Reps. Issa and Quigley Talk Open Data and Jobs at Transparency Caucus Panel

Transparency Caucus co-chairs Quigley (L) and Issa (R)
Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) spoke before a Congressional Transparency Caucus panel of tech entrepreneurs this week about the impact of open data on job creation. The panel provided an opportunity to hear from industry voices who are already demonstrating how government open data can act as a public resource that stimulates innovation and grows businesses.

The panel met as the U.S. Senate is poised to act on its version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), which was shepherded through the U.S. House of Representatives last November by Rep. Issa in a 388-1 vote. The DATA Act would the mandate the implementation of government-wide data standards for public information on federal spending.

Panel members were also eager to talk about the potentially devastating impact of H.R. 4164, a bill approved this month by the House Financial Services committee that would exempt over 60% of publicly traded firms from current requirements to submit corporate disclosures as XBRL structured data.

The Data Transparency Coalition's Hudson Hollister, who moderated the discussion, asked Chad Sandstedt, co-founder of Coalition member TagniFi, to react to H.R. 4164 and offer his thoughts on a better approach to open data at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sandstedt said that businesses like TagniFi would be severely impacted if H.R. 4164 were enacted. He argued that for data to be most useful for businesses, open data must be easily consumable, complete, and of high quality. However, while TagniFi has been able to fix errors in the SEC's current corporate financial data set, the enactment of H.R. 4164 would render the data set so incomplete as to make it functionally useless.

Marcus Louie, data solutions architect and federal evangelist at Coalition member Socrata, said government organizations are sometimes reluctant to release their information as open data for fear of exposing quality problems. But after taking that step, he said, governments often find that transparency pays dividends in improved quality.

"I think there is actually tremendous untapped potential for developers and coders and hackers with a civic interest to help in what is going to be a very major task of data cleanup," added Open Data Now author Joel Gurin. For example, he said, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently convened a group of about 100 geospatial hackers to fix a flawed key data set over the course of a weekend.

Representatives from TagniFi, FindTheBest, and Socrata all pointed out that their transformation and republication of government open data helps other companies grow. Kevin Davis, director of the business category at FindTheBest, said that "serendipitous uses" of his company's data comparison and analysis platform are helping firms find actionable information much more cheaply than they could from legacy information providers.

Although these three firms tailor their business models to meet the needs of different groups of users -- TangniFi for investors, FindTheBest for consumers, and Socrata for citizens --  they are all building value on government open data.

Gurin said he hopes governments will begin publishing information with a specific intent of making it useful to the private sector -- as well as serving the primary goal of transparency. He announced the NYU GovLab's plans to use its Open Data 500 study as an opportunity to better connect governments with the businesses hoping to use their data. Researchers at NYU will gain an objective understanding of which government information could hold the greatest business value if it were published as machine-readable, open data.

Rep. Issa remarked that, even among the community of transparency advocates, many still believe that simply publishing information as PDFs or documents is sufficient.

"Documents are not data," said Rep. Issa, riffing on the late astrophysicist and cosmologist, Carl Sagan. "They have the potential to be data the same as an amoeba can be a man."

The panel concluded with a discussion of recommendations for Congress. Gurin urged members to work to implement President Obama's Open Data Policy, which makes several strong open data commitments. Sandstedt called on Congress to reject H.R. 4164 and direct the SEC to validate and enforce the quality of structured data corporate financial statement filings. He also advocated for the expansion of structured data tagging to other submissions that are today expressed as plain-text documents, such as earnings releases on Form 8-K and quarterly reports on Form 10-Q. Davis stressed the importance of enforcing data standards and consistency at all levels of government. Louie encouraged Congress to bear in mind the importance of democratizing access to open data.

"We're all going to have to make those tough choices," said Rep. Quigley. "With greater transparency, I think we'll make better choices -- more informed choices -- and the public will know why we're making them."

Welcome to the official mouthpiece of the Data Transparency Coalition.