|Transparency Caucus co-chairs Quigley (L) and Issa (R)|
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."