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  • July 22, 2016 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

    In April, the Securities and Exchange Commission published a 341-page Concept Release exploring the future of corporate disclosure in the United States. Yesterday the Data Coalition responded.

    Yesterday’s comment letter calls for the SEC to completely replace its current system of old-fashioned, plain-text disclosure documents with open data.

    This is the Coalition’s third major appeal for the SEC to transform its disclosure system. We provided a detailed comment on the agency’s strategic plan in March 2014 and submitted a full road map for open data transformation to the agency’s Division of Corporation Finance in October 2015.

    Last April’s Concept Release shows that we’re making progress! The Concept Release says (at page 249) that the SEC is thinking about transforming public companies’ subsidiaries disclosure – one of the documents that needs open data most desperately – into open data fields, just as we’ve recommended. It asks for suggestions (at page 255) about how to start using the global Legal Entity Identifier (LEI) to match public companies’ SEC filings with their filings to other agencies, just as we’ve recommended. And a whole section (section V.G) of the Concept Release asks how to fix the agency’s embattled open data reporting program for corporate financial statements, just as we’ve … you get the idea.

    In fact, the Concept Release even cites our previous comment letter several times.

    On the other hand, the Concept Release still assumes that the future of corporate disclosure will be based on documents, not on data.

    The Concept Release invests a lot of energy (questions 286-306!) asking for suggestions about how to use cross-referencing, incorporation by reference, and hyperlinks in corporate disclosures, to save investors from having to read lengthy documents. Open data makes these techniques unnecessary! If all corporate disclosure information were published as open data, then companies like idaciti and Bloomberg could deliver that information to investors at whatever level of detail they want. With open data, the SEC won’t have to worry any more about snowing investors with too much detail.

    The Concept release also asks (starting at page 318) if the SEC should prescribe new graphic layouts for corporate disclosures. In an open data world, there’s no need for the government to prescribe how corporate information needs to look on a page.

    To make progress on corporate disclosure, the SEC needs to question its assumption that document disclosure is the wave of the future. Our comment letter says so, with lots of footnotes.

    Read the Coalition’s full comment here.


  • July 14, 2016 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

    In real life, document redlining is normal. If you’re a student or a knowledge worker, you probably use redlines in Microsoft Word or other tools to track changes and compare drafts.

    But in Congress, document redlining is not normal.

    On their way to death or passage – usually death – pieces of legislation are usually amended many times. You can track a bill’s progress on Congress.gov. But you can’t see how each version changed from the last one.

    To redline a bill from its last version, you have to copy-paste both versions into Microsoft Word and run a comparison yourself. And that’s tricky, because page numbers and preambles and formatting don’t line up.

    But Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) wants to change that. How? Open data is how.

    Rep. Stefanik, joined by Luke Messer (D-IN) introduced the Establishing Digital Interactive Transparency Act (EDIT Act) (H.R. 5493) on June 14th, 2016. The bill is currently pending in the House of Representatives’ Committee on House Administration. When this bill is signed into law, the Library of Congress would be charged with implementation and would have one year to comply.

    What will it do?

    The main body of the EDIT Act is one short, very sweet sentence:

    “In the operation of the Congress.gov website, the Librarian of Congress shall ensure that each version of a bill or resolution which is made available for viewing on the website is presented in a manner which permits the viewer to follow and track online, within the same document, any changes made from previous versions of the bill or resolution.”

    Translation: everybody gets a redline!

    Imagine having the ability to track and monitor changes to a bill from its initial conception, through committee markup, to the House of Representatives and Senate floor for amendments and voting, all the way to the President’s desk. This would create a truly transparent legislative process. But we aren’t there yet.

    How do we get to automatic redlining?

    There’s only one way to do this: open data.

    Today the House and Senate use documents, not data, to track their magnificent paper trails. In order to create the sort of redline Rep. Stefanik wants, the House and Senate would have to adopt a standardized, open data format for all bills. Bills would have to be drafted, handled, and amended in that format.

    The technology already exists.

    A screen shot of Xcential’s redlining software.

    Two years ago, the Clerk of the House and the Office of the Law Revision Counsel set out to create and apply an open data format in the U.S. House Modernization project. Data Coalition member company Xcential is helping to run it. Xcential’s software can natively draft and amend bills using the XML-based U.S. Legislative Model.

    But there was no push for the Senate to embrace this project as well. Not, that is, until Rep. Stefanik came along. By requiring all bills to be redlinable on Congress.gov, the EDIT Act is also pushing the modernization effort that is already underway.

    The EDIT Act is one piece in the broader effort to move the U.S. federal government technological capabilities into the 21st Century. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) (PL 113-101), the nation’s first open data law, mandates all U.S. federal spending information must be be standardized and published in an open, machine-readable format. Just as the DATA Act creates a common format for spending, the EDIT Act requires a common format for legislative materials.

    The Statutes at Large Modernization Act (SALMA – HR 4006) is another relevant bipartisan bill. Introduced by Reps. Dave Brat (VA-7-R) and Seth Moulton (MA-6-D), and currently pending in the House of Representatives. SALMA would require a common data format for the Statutes at Large.

    What does this mean down the track for open data?

    Imagine if spending data (under the DATA Act) and legislative data (after the EDIT Act and SALMA and other reforms) came together.

    If Congressional appropriations committees coded their appropriations bills in a consistent open data format, and connected the same to the spending data format that the DATA Act requires – you’d have an electronic connection between every appropriation and the spending it funds.

    You could electronically track the consequences of every Congressional spending decision – from appropriation to Treasury allocation to agency obligation, all the way down to payments to contractors and grantees. This is called the “life cycle” of federal spending.

    Such a connection would simplify the appropriations process. It would cut back on the hours staffers spend researching. It would give citizens the ability to hold their member of Congress accountable for all the consequences of every spending decision.

    Achieving this whole picture is years away.

    The immediate challenge is mandating a common data format for legislative materials so redlining is possible. The EDIT Act is one step in the right direction.

    Therefore, Data Coalition strongly supports the passage of the EDIT Act.


  • April 18, 2016 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

    UPDATE: The OPEN Government Data Act was formally introduced by Reps. Kilmer and Farenthold and Sens. Sasse and Schatz on April 26, 2016. In a joint statement, the legislators said the bill would improve services in the public sector and support new discoveries in the private sector.

    The Data Coalition, which represents the growing open data industry, was pleased to welcome the introduction of the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act by Representatives Derek Kilmer (WA-D) and Blake Farenthold (TX–R) last Thurday at a press event co-hosted with the Center for Data Innovation.IMG_9242

    Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) also announced they’ll soon introduce a companion bill in the Senate. The bill text is available on Congress.gov and Rep. Kilmer’s office has published a section-by-section summary.

    Simply put, the OPEN Government Data Act makes the President’s 2013 open data policy into law (see Presidential memo M-13-13). It directs all federal agencies to publish their information as machine-readable data, using searchable, open formats. It requires every agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory that lists all data sets, and also mandates a centralized inventory for the whole government – codifying the platform currently known as data.gov.

    The Data Coalition readily endorsed this bill. “When government information is expressed as open data, it can be republished for better transparency outside government, analyzed for better management within government, and automated for cheaper reporting to government,” said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Coalition, in the Coalition’s media statement. “Our Coalition members’ technologies can do all those things, but only if the information is expressed as open data instead of disconnected documents.”

    Here are seven things you should know about the OPEN Government Data Act.

    1. If you read nothing else, read Section 5!

    The core of the OPEN Government Data Act is Section 5, which says:

    To the greatest extent practicable, Government data assets made available by an agency shall be published as machine-readable data … To the greatest extent practicable when not otherwise prohibited by law, Government data assets shall … be available in an open format, and … be available under open licenses.

    Section 5 makes it the official policy of the U.S. government that all information should be published as open data, using nonproprietary formats. Section 5’s broad mandate is very good news for the Data Coalition’s policy agenda.

    Section 5 would make every failure to use open data – the SEC’s clinging to document-based corporate disclosures, Treasury and OMB’s continued use of the proprietary DUNS Number, the IRS’ reluctance to move to e-filing – legally questionable.

    If the OPEN Government Data Act becomes law, the federal government will certainly not change its information collection and publication practices overnight, or automatically, to conform. Section 5 is much too broad to accomplish that.

    But the Coalition and other open data supporters will be able to use the law in comment letters, hearings, and public advocacy to encourage faster change.

    2. Bipartisan support means the OPEN Government Data Act has an excellent chance of becoming law.

    IMG_9234The need for open data is an issue that crosses party lines in both the House and the Senate.

    According to Rep. Kilmer, the OPEN Government Data Act “will empower the government to be more effective, private sector to innovate, and public to participate.” The breadth of potential uses of valuable public-sector data excited Rep. Farenthold, a former computer and web design consultant. Farenthold told Thursday morning’s audience: “We need to get the full value of what the government has done!”

    Sen. Schatz said, “[In Washington] we don’t always agree on everything but this is about accountability and efficiency…we have found our common ground for the good of the people and of the economy.”

    For the OPEN Government Data Act to move through Congress, it must next earn consideration by the committees that have jurisdiction: the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. But the bill’s bipartisan footing, and Rep. Farenthold’s and Sen. Sasse’s seats on those two committees – give it an excellent chance.

    3. Industry experts and nonprofit advocates say the OPEN Government Data Act is necessary – but not sufficient – to transform government.

    At the event, Hollister moderated a panel discussion featuring Kat Duffy, director of Sunlight Labs, Tim Day, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, Jed Sundwall, head of open data at Amazon, and Joshua New, policy associate at the Center for Data Innovation.IMG_9261

    Day pointed out that the OPEN Government Data Act is a “rational policy to create jobs and promote innovation,” as traditional manufacturing companies increasingly see themselves as technology data companies. Duffy described the bill’s central finding that government “information presumptively should be available to the general public” (Sec. 2 (a)2)) as “magic language” that “should be inherent to the fabric of our country.” Sundwall simply remarked that the “availability of open data is kind of like oxygen” for Amazon and other web infrastructure companies.

    The OPEN Government Data Act – if it becomes law, and if agencies follow the law – will unlock information that can drive new business opportunities for all sorts of companies, and new advocacy platforms for all sorts of nonprofits.

    But while echoing the bill’s opening statement that “[g]overnment data is a valuable national resource” (Sec. 2 (a)(1)), New underscored that there are many potential users who don’t yet understand the potential of open data.

    4. While Section 5 is sweeping and broad, Section 7 provides a practical mandate: agencies have to create and maintain inventories of their data assets.

    While Section 5 of the OPEN Government Data Act will provide a sweeping mandate that all federal information should be expressed as open data, Section 7 provides a more practical requirement:

    [E]ach agency … shall develop and main an enterprise data inventory … that accounts for any data asset created, collected, under the control of, or maintained by the agency.

    President Obama’s 2013 Open Data Policy already requires agencies to do this. Section 7 gives that requirement the force of law and extends it beyond the Obama administration.

    Agencies’ data assets are as diverse and extensive as the work of the federal government itself. Sundwall, commenting on the exercise of opening up government data sets: “it can seem kind of endless.” As he pointed out, agencies may not even fully understand what data they have.

    But the process of publicly accounting for data assets creates a dialogue between different agencies, and between the government and the public. The Sunlight Foundation’s Duffy said, “[I]t is very useful to see the world of information in one agency over another.” Data inventories allow the public to zero in on areas of value, encourage agencies to clean up messy databases, and ultimately reduce inter-agency duplication.

    By making the 2013 inventory process permanent, said the Center for Data Innovation’s New, the OPEN Government Data Act helps ensure that public data “will be available forever,” and provides a way to authenticate data.

    5. The legislation fits with the DATA Act and Financial Transparency Act  – and may reinforce them.

    The Data Coalition generally avoids generalities (repetition intended!) in its policy campaign. We advocate domain-specific policy changes that deliver immediate value to government, society, and our members.

    We also avoid buzzwords!

    The Coalition successfully advocated for the passage of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) of 2014, the nation’s first open data law. The DATA Act requires the federal government to express spending information as open data.

    The Coalition is currently supporting the Financial Transparency Act (H.R. 2477), which would transform financial regulatory information into open data.

    The OPEN Government Data Act is different. Rather than focusing on a particular domain, like spending or financial regulation, this bill applies to all the information the federal government collects and generates.

    So, for the Data Coalition, what’s the value of supporting such a broad mandate? Because it can reinforce the specific ones.

    If the OPEN Government Data Act becomes law, we’ll be able to point to it to resolve questions about interpreting the DATA Act or the Financial Transparency Act.

    For example, earlier this year, a GAO report revealed that the White House is trying to reinterpret the DATA Act to be much narrower than Congress intended. If the OPEN Government Data Act were in effect, it could help prevent such narrow reinterpretations from ever being offered in the first place.

    The OPEN Government Data Act also will provide a pathway to advocate open data transformations in areas where there’s not yet a specific law – like the IRS’ nonprofit tax returns or the Justice Department’s foreign agent registration forms.

    6. This is an anti-DUNS law – because it bans proprietary standards.

    FullSizeRender-2The federal government is starting to move away from its dependency on the proprietary Digital Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number to identify grantees and contractors. Because the DUNS Number is proprietary – itself owned by a contractor, Dun & Bradstreet – nobody can use spending information without purchasing a license. That means, even after the DATA Act, spending data won’t yet be fully open.

    Section 5 of the OPEN Government Data Act scores a direct hit on proprietary data standards like the DUNS Number. Section 5 requires all agencies to publish their information “open formats,” which are defined in a way that excludes the DUNS Number, and to publish information under “open license,” which means the information has to be available at no cost.

    Section 5 says agencies only have to do this “to the extent practicable,” and there’s surely a good argument that switching away from the DUNS Number all at once wouldn’t be practicable.

    But as the government continues to evaluate the best way to track hundreds of thousands of grantees and contractors, the OPEN Government Data Act will offer one more reason why it should reject the DUNS Number and adopt an identification code that is freely available.

    As the Center for Data Innovation’s New pointed out on Thursday, the DUNS Number makes it harder than it needs to be for agencies and private-sector watchdogs to track spending. The OPEN Government Data Act will help break the dependency.

    7. Coalition members can use government information to deliver better transparency, better management, and automated compliance – but only if the information is expressed as open data. The OPEN Government Data Act will be a powerful catalyst for business opportunities.

    The Data Coalition sees consistently-structured, consistently-available government data as the key to a multitude of federal management, financial oversight, and regulatory challenges.

    Our members’ technologies can republish government information for better transparency, analyze it to enable better management, and automate reports to reduce compliance burdens. But all these technologies only work on open data. They don’t work on documents.

    For our members to pursue their business models, and deliver benefits like transparency, better management, and automation, the government has to decide to adopt standardized formats and consistently publish its information in the first place.

    The OPEN Government Data Act, by offering a legal mandate for data standardization and publication, will hasten the transformation from disconnected documents to open data.

    As Sunlight’s Duffy put it in her closing remarks, “The idea [is] that this is the public’s data….it would be so nice to no longer be debating the virtues of open data, but to instead be talking about ways to do that.”

    In coming months, the Data Coalition will be working to encourage legislators to co-sponsor and the committees of jurisdiction to consider, and pass, this bill.


  • April 04, 2016 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

    Last Thursday the Data Coalition was honored to meet with the Arkansas Open Data and Transparency Task Force.  The Task Force is a one-of-a-kind body, established by law, that includes state legislators, representatives of the Governor and Attorney General, and the leadership of most of the state’s largest agencies. Its job: by the end of this year, recommend an open data law to the Arkansas legislature.

    The Task Force invited the Data Coalition to present a “menu” of open data options. With such an open-ended mandate, where should the Task Force focus its reform recommendation? What are the benefits of standardizing and publishing public-sector spending information? What if the Task Force focuses on regulatory reporting instead? How does health care fit in? We recruited government leaders and Coalition members to explain the benefits other states, the federal government, and foreign countries have derived from open data in each substantive area.

    We told the Task Force that open data isn’t just good for public accountability. It also powers analytics for internal management and – done right – reduces compliance costs by automating reporting tasks that used to be manual.

    Here are the presentations we shared with the Task Force on Thursday – and what we learned ourselves.

    Open Data in Spending: Deliver Transparency, Stop Fraud

    The federal government, and many states and localities, are adopting consistent data standards for information about their finances, transactions, grants, and contracts – and publishing that information as open data. When spending information is expressed as open data instead of old-fashioned documents, citizens can use it to hold politicians accountable; managers and inspectors general can visualize and analyze spending more easily; and required reports by grantees and contractors can be automated.

    The federal DATA Act, whose passage our Coalition celebrated in 2014, requires the executive branch to transform all federal spending information into open data. The U.S. Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget are hard at work creating a government-wide data structure to bring the federal government’s disparate types of spending information together as one searchable data set. Federal agencies must report their spending using these standards by May 2017. Meanwhile, the law requires OMB to run a pilot program that determines whether the same standards can help federal grantees and contractors automate their reports and comply more cheaply.

    But many state and local governments are far ahead. Seth Unger, senior policy advisor to Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, showed the Arkansas task force that Ohio’s Online Checkbook allows citizens to navigate through all spending by the Ohio government and its agencies – from statewide categories all the way down to each individual transaction. By publishing spending information as standardized, open data, the Online Checkbook improved the state’s grade in the Public Interest Research Group's ranking of state spending transparency efforts from D minus to the first-ever A plus.

    Ohio's Online Checkbook allows Ohioans to navigate from broad trends to individual transactions - not just for state agencies, but now for many municipal governments too.

    Ohio’s Online Checkbook allows Ohioans to navigate from broad trends to individual transactions – not just for state agencies, but now for many municipal governments too.

    Mr. Unger told the task force that Ohio’s Online Checkbook has allowed users – both inside and outside the state government – to quickly notice “outliers” and strange patterns and take corrective action.

    (Ohio had an easier challenge than some other governments because it had already standardized its spending information. Ohio adopted a single, consolidated statewide financial system in 2007 – a far cry from the thousands of incompatible financial systems in use by federal agencies. But even with a single financial system in place, Treasurer Mandel and his team had to improve data standardization to make sure the data set on Ohio’s Online Checkbook was meaningful and accurate.)

    Treasurer Mandel has taken Ohio spending transparency to the next level by inviting Ohio's local governments to voluntarily publish their spending as open data on Ohio’s Online Checkbook. Nearly 100 cities and towns, 75 townships, 15 counties, 70 school districts, and 15 other entities have done so.

    Even in advance of the DATA Act’s mandate, many federal agencies are standardizing internal data sets to empower analytics to suss out fraud. Dave Williams, former inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service, told the task force that he deployed multiple analytic tools against the Postal Service’s spending data. RADAR assigns a fraud risk score to each of the Postal Service’s hundreds of thousands of contracts, allowing investigators to focus on those most likely to involve fraud. TripWire sends an alert when specific situations – such as a proportionally large contract modification or a sudden increase in an employee’s health claims – occur.

    “When information is standardized [as open data],” said Mr. Williams, analytics “will be immediate.” But without data standards, every analytics project requires expensive, purpose-built translations.

    Open Data in Regulatory Reporting: Cheaper for Business, Better for Agencies

    When regulatory agencies choose to collect reports using standardized, open formats, instead of unstructured documents, the information becomes easier for the agencies to analyze – and can be reported in an automated fashion.

    Pramodh Vittal of DataTracks told the task force that the UK tax authority, HMRC, simplified reporting for millions of companies by adopting the inline XBRL (“iXBRL”) open data format. This format is both human-readable and machine-readable, which means it can fulfill document-based reporting requirements while also empowering analytics software. Mr. Vittal's presentation showed how software helps companies easily report their financial information in iXBRL.

    (HMRC is working side-by-side with Companies House, which regulates all companies in much the same way as most U.S. states’ secretaries of state, to collect tax filings in the same format as Companies House’ corporate filings. This 2012 video from Companies House explains how it works.)

    A similar story comes from the Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), which is running a pilot project to adopt an open data format for the financial information that utilities must submit. Although the Washington UTC could not join our presentation on Thursday, an eight-minute video produced by Coalition member RR Donnelley explains how the open data format improves accuracy and reduces costs.

    Open data is coming to federal regulatory reporting on a grand scale. Last year, open data supporters in Congress introduced the Financial Transparency Act (H.R. 2477), which will require all eight major federal financial regulatory agencies to adopt consistent data standards for all the information they collect from public companies, banks, and financial firms. Open data in financial regulatory reporting will bring transparency to investors, enable analytics to anticipate Enron-style frauds, and allow regulated companies to automate compliance.


    The Financial Transparency Act will require all eight major federal financial regulatory agencies to adopt consistent data standards for the information they collect - transforming financial regulation from disconnected documents into open data.

    The federal Financial Transparency Act (H.R. 2477) will require all eight major federal financial regulatory agencies to adopt consistent data standards for the information they collect – transforming financial regulation from disconnected documents into open data.

    Last week the Data Coalition’s Financial Data Summit brought together over 300 supporters of this transformation. Financial Data Summit speeches, presentations, and media coverage are all available on the Coalition’s event site.

    Health Care, Parks and Recreation, and Anywhere Else: Standardizing and Publishing Makes Life Easier

    Mary Kay McDaniel of Cognosante told the task force that data standards for health care information can drive new functionality, like price comparisons and quality ratings. Her presentation introduced the main standards in use today, explored the reasons why data standardization is challenging in health care, and offered examples of standards-driven apps. She encouraged the task force to send a representative to national health care data gatherings like the Health Datapalooza.

    Although campsite-reservation startup Hipcamp could not send a representative, we explained to the task force that if the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism were to publish campsite availability as standardized data, Hipcamp and other startups could use it to enable consumers to make electronic reservations. The national park system and California’s state parks currently offer standardized campsite availability data. But Hipcamp is still asking all other states to take that same step.


    Hipcamp's platform allows customers to view campsites in their area. If parks departments published campsite availability as open data, then Hipcamp's customers could make reservations on the spot.

    Hipcamp’s platform allows customers to view campsites in their area. If parks departments published campsite availability as open data, then Hipcamp’s customers could make reservations on the spot.

    What do health care information and campsite availability have in common? Both become more useful to consumers, professionals, and public servants if standardized and published. In fact, as we repeated to the task force, standardization and publication solve problems in pretty much every area of government data.

    Open Data Across Departments, Divisions, and Disciplines

    The final phase of our presentation to the task force introduced four open data platforms that aren’t limited to a specific type of information. Tableau, Socrata, Esri, and OpenGov all allow users to organize and visualize information and make connections across multiple data sets – connections that would be impossible if those data sets weren’t standardized and published.

    Open data reforms must be purpose-built for complex areas of government information, like spending, regulatory reporting, health care, and recreation. For instance, the federal DATA Act had to call out specific reports and systems and provide a strong mandate for data standards within spending.

    But Tableau, Socrata, Esri, and OpenGov all showed the power of data sets sourced from different areas of government information, combined using common standards, and then deployed for the public good.

    Anthony Young of Tableau used the Florida Department of Transportation’s auto crash dashboard to show how standardized data can deliver unprecedented insights for government leaders. Tableau’s platform allows Florida policymakers to categorize, visualize, and understand auto accidents statewide and by county. The data standards aren’t perfect: for example, when the department changed its reporting methodology for distracted driving in January 2011, trendlines jumped. But the standards are sufficient to reveal insights that could never come from old-fashioned document-based reports.

    Chris Rodriguez of Socrata used the state of Iowa as a use case for connecting data sets from different disciplines. Iowa's original open data site required users to know what agency published the data they were looking for. But the new data.Iowa.gov portal allows users to run Google-style keyword searches or browse by topic area. The portal can lead users to interactive open data off all sorts, from unemployment insurance statistics to granular spending information. And it connects automatically to the federal open data portal, Data.gov – which means Iowa’s data sets can be combined with other states’.

    Mr. Rodriguez shared a surprising observation from Iowa: most users of the state’s data portal are state employees working inside government – not citizens following their government. These state employees are finding data.Iowa.gov a more versatile than the internal systems from which the data sets are sourced. Socrata’s observation matches one of the most popular goals of the open data movement: governments should "eat their own dog food," basing management decisions on the same information they publish as open data.

    Matt Bullock of Esri introduced the state of Michigan's open data portal, which Esri maintains. Esri’s specialty is geospatial information. Since the “vast majority of [government] data has a geospatial component,” Michigan’s portal offers many examples of combining different data sets on one map. Michigan’s portal also allows embeddability: every data set includes electronic codes that allow it to be featured in new websites, automatically linking back to the original data set for automatic updating whenever the source changes.

    Mike Dougherty of OpenGov explored the open data network effect: when multiple governments publish their information using the same standards, comparisons among them become possible. OpenGov’s 900 clients, including several Arkansas towns, have all embraced the same data structure for accounting, transactional, and performance data – which means their budgets and finances can all be compared against their peers’.

    OpenGov’s client list also includes Treasurer Mandel’s success story in Ohio.

    What’s Next for Arkansas?

    The Arkansas Open Data and Transparency Task Force is going to deliver a report to Governor Asa Hutchinson and both chambers of the state legislature by December 31, 2016. The report will recommend legislative language for an open data law.

    Open data policy reforms are a challenge because the benefits of open data are as broad as government information itself:

    • Open data can deliver better accountability, as Ohio’s experiences show. Ohio’s online checkbook makes outliers more visible than they ever could have been if trapped in old-fashioned document-based records.
    • Open data can deliver better management. Iowa’s state employees are the most enthusiastic users of the state’s open data portal – even though they presumably also have access to the internal systems from which the portal sources its data sets. Clearly, when information is standardized and published, it becomes more useful to managers within government as well as citizens outside government.
    • Open data can deliver automated compliance. UK companies can report to Companies House and HMRC simultaneously because those two agencies adopted the same open data format for financial information. That’s cheaper than filing two separate reports. 

    The Open Data and Transparency Task Force’s job is challenging – not because it’s difficult to derive benefits from open data but because it’s so easy! There are so many possibilities for better accountability, better management, and automated compliance throughout the state that nine more months won’t be enough time to explore them all. There is too much on the menu.

    But we hope Thursday’s presentations provided a good start.

    Thanks for your hospitality, Little Rock! See you next time!

  • November 18, 2015 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

    You’ve probably never heard of the U.S. Statutes at Large, which yesterday became the centerpiece of Congress’ latest move toward open data in law and regulation.

    This "permanent collection of laws and resolutions enacted during each session of Congress" isn’t as well known as the U.S. Code. While the Code organizes laws by subject matter (a process called “codification”), the Statutes at Large lists them sequentially, the way they were originally passed by Congress.

    Two years ago, Congress started publishing the U.S. Code as open data, using a standardized XML structure called the U.S. Legislative Model (USLM).  That means software can understand the structure of the Code’s codified laws, connect citations electronically, and (eventually) redline proposed changes automatically.

    How does it work? The USLM uses standardized electronic data elements to specify titles, sections, and paragraphs; identify citations; pinpoint dates of enactment and effectiveness; and express other information that previously had to be manually understood by humans reading the text.

    The open data transformation hasn’t made its way to the Statutes at Large yet. But yesterday, Reps. Dave Brat (R-VA) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) proposed a bill to change that.

    The Statutes at Large Modernization Act (H.R. 4006) directs the National Archives and Records Administration to publish an official open-data version of the Statutes at Large. The bill doesn’t specify what format should be used, but does direct the Archives to consult with all the other entities in the federal government that are involved in the legislative process, including the Congressional office that is already handling the U.S. Code. As long as the Archives does its homework, it should select the USLM – because that will make the Statutes at Large and the U.S. Code interoperable with one another.

    (The bill names seven different offices and agencies, in addition to the Archives, that draft, compile, and publish laws. That helps explain why the government has modernized our laws so slowly.)

    You’ll find the text of the Statutes at Large Modernization Act here, ironically in PDF. An XML version of the bill will be ready in a few days. (Our Coalition hopes someday Congress will natively draft its legislation in XML to begin with, instead of creating plain-text documents that are later turned into data.)

    The Data Transparency Coalition endorsed the Statutes at Large Modernization Act because it takes a giant step toward our ultimate goal: all U.S. legislative and regulatory materials should be open data, instead of documents.

    We hope Congress acts quickly on Reps. Brat and Moulton’s proposal. But Congress shouldn’t stop there: all the materials upstream of the Code and the Statutes at Large need to be transformed into open data too, using the same common format, the USLM. The clear next step will be for Congressional bills, resolutions, and amendments to be drafted and published as open data.


  • May 10, 2015 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

    One year ago yesterday, President Obama signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) into law. The nation’s first-ever open data law envisions the transformation of the federal government’s spending information from disconnected documents into searchable data. The Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) met the law’s first, one-year deadline on Friday, May 8 (a day early!), by announcing the data standards that will make this documents-to-data transformation possible.

    The DATA Act’s long journey began in 2010, when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) decided to pursue legislation to make federal spending data fully searchable. Issa and Sen. Mark Wagner (D-VA) first introduced the legislation in June 2011. The DATA Act’s arduous three-year journey to passage was memorably told last year by Vox.com’s Andrew Prokop. The DATA Act’s enactment a year ago was the Data Transparency Coalition’s first major legislative victory in our quest to transform all government information into open data – but it won’t be our last!

    Back to the present. In this post, you’ll find a full rundown of Friday’s Treasury/OMB announcement; an unvarnished assessment of what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s vague about it; and three next steps for federal leaders, tech companies, and transparency supporters.

    The next public opportunity to engage with the DATA Act leaders at Treasury and OMB is one month away. On June 10th, the Coalition will host our second annual DATA Act Summit in Washington, bringing together the implementers, supporters, and beneficiaries of searchable spending data. With the Association of Government Accountants and ACT-IAC co-hosting, the DATA Act Summit will be the largest-ever event of its kind. 

    Standards, Guidance, Playbook, and Pilot – What it All Means

    On Friday, Treasury and OMB rolled out their announcement in a blog post jointly authored by Fiscal Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Dave Lebryk and OMB Controller Dave Mader. Under the DATA Act, the two Daves’ offices are jointly responsible for the whole DATA Act transformation. (No pressure.) The Daves’ blog post is your guide to the four big pieces of news: the data standards themselves, guidance from OMB on what agencies will have to do with them, a playbook published by Treasury explaining how agencies can embrace the DATA Act, and the Section 5 recipient reporting pilot program.

    It’s all about standards. At the core of the DATA Act is a mandate for the federal government to adopt, and enforce, consistent data standards: data elements for common spending concepts and a common structure (expressed in the law as a “format”) that ties them all together. Data standards are so important to the DATA Act that Sen. Mark Warner defied the White House in January 2014 to make sure this mandate stayed in his bill.

    Thanks to Sen. Warner’s boldness last year, the DATA Act requires Treasury and OMB to develop elements and a format, announce them, and then impose them, over two years, on all the spending information that federal agencies report – information that today is siloed in separate reporting systems and segregated into financial, budget, payment, grant, and contract databases.

    On Friday, Treasury and OMB unveiled these standards. First, Treasury and OMB announced 57 data elements. In the future, agencies will have to express these elements the same way wherever they appear. Second, they announced a schema, or structure, that defines how the elements relate to each other. Agencies will be required to submit their information using this structure. There’s a new page on USASpending.gov, the federal government’s official spending data website, where the DATA Act standards are now published. (Bookmark it!)

    The standards may have been unveiled, but for the most part they are still unfinalized. To their credit, Treasury and OMB have been seeking input on the elements and schema from agencies, advocates, and the public. Earlier this year, Treasury and OMB set up a portal on the GitHub collaboration platform that allows anyone to share an opinion on each element and on the schema. The Federal Spending Transparency DATA Act and FFATA Collaboration Space (rolls right off the tongue) gives everyone a voice on the standards before Treasury and OMB make choices on how each element is to be defined and how the relationships between them are to be expressed in the schema.

    Nobody could claim the DATA Act is implementation without representation. Through the GitHub platform, everyone interested in data standards for federal spending has been able to watch the standards develop – and even help direct that development.

    Of the 57 data elements, fifteen are final; twelve will be finalized soon; and 30 are still open for public comment. (Unsurprisingly, the 30 still open include the most controversial: a unique identifier code that identifies grantees and contractors receiving federal funds.)

    The schema also needs a lot more work. Today, it covers financial information, but doesn’t yet encompass grant and contract reporting. But there’s a clear commitment to expand it so that it includes the whole structure of federal spending.

    OMB guidance explains what’s coming. The DATA Act gives agencies two years, starting with the announcement of the data standards, to start using those standards to actually report their spending. What does that mean?

    To start answering that question, OMB issued guidance (PDF) on Friday in the form of an official memo to all federal agencies. The guidance explains what agencies are going to have to do between now and May 8, 2017.

    Agencies currently report their financial information to Treasury, their budget execution to OMB, and their grant and contract award details to various systems that feed the existing USASpending.gov website. OMB’s guidance makes clear that these activities will continue, but need to be updated so that, within two years, the information conforms to the DATA Act data standards – both the elements and the schema.

    Agencies must:

    • Follow the DATA Act data elements, as published on USASpending.gov, when they collect and report any spending information, including financial to Treasury, budget to OMB, grants and contracts to various systems (page 7).
    • Get ready to report their financial information to Treasury using the DATA Act elements and schema. OMB’s guidance promises that Treasury is currently piloting this process “with select agencies” (page 7) and will provide instructions to all agencies once those pilots are complete.
    • Consistently track their grants and contracts by assigning unique identification numbers (pages 7-8). Crucially, OMB’s guidance announces that these award identification numbers (Federal Award Identification Numbers for grants and other assistance; Procurement Instrument Identifiers for contracts) will eventually need to link back and forth between financial systems and award systems. This means, for instance, that an agency must be able to figure out which transactions in its accounting software are associated with a particular grant – and, conversely, to see the awards associated with a particular accounting transaction.
    • Soon report all grant and contract transactions above the level of “micropurchases” (page 8) to the existing grant and contract award reporting systems.
    • Create a plan for all this (page 2) and share it with OMB.

    For the time being, existing financial, budget, and award reporting requirements will remain in place. But the guidance gives agencies notice that there may be “future changes in agency reporting to OMB and Treasury” (page 6).

    Treasury Playbook recommends proactive steps. Alongside OMB’s guidance, Treasury has published a DATA Act “Playbook” recommending eight key steps for agencies’ management. The steps are not mandatory, but Treasury suggests that they can help agencies fulfill the requirements of the DATA Act while avoiding costly system changes. The Playbook is not public, but Treasury has published a one-page summary.

    The DATA Act Playbook says agencies should:

    • Create a DATA Act team, led by a Senior Accountable Official;
    • Review the DATA Act data elements and use the GitHub platform to voice their opinions;
    • Create an inventory of their spending-related data and the systems that collect and generate it;
    • Plan any necessary changes to systems and processes to capture financial, budget, and award data that are subject to the standards;
    • Set up a data “broker” – a data layer that can translate spending information produced by existing systems into the standards;
    • Test the data broker;
    • Update systems if necessary; and
    • Submit spending data consistent with the DATA Act elements and schema.

    Pilot program kicks off at HHS. The DATA Act’s mandate isn’t limited to information that agencies are required to report. The law envisions that recipients – grantees, contractors, and entities receiving other forms of federal assistance, like loan guarantees – may someday begin reporting their receipt and use of federal funds using the new data standards, too.

    But the law doesn’t directly require grantees and contractors to start using the standards, the way it imposes a two-year deadline on agencies. Instead, it requires OMB to commission a pilot program to test whether the DATA Act data standards will work properly for grantee and contractor reporting. If standardized reporting allows grantees and contractors to automate and consolidate their reporting processes – reducing their compliance costs – then OMB, under the law, is empowered to impose the DATA Act data standards across all the federal government’s recipients.

    The Treasury/OMB blog post announces that the pilot program has started, with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) deputized to lead it. And HHS is busy already, having published another set of data elements – far more extensive than the 57 official ones – on USASpending.gov. This special set of data elements is meant to cover all the information that grantees must typically submit to the agency that awarded them their money. HHS will be using this set of data elements to test whether grantees’ reports can be made searchable, consolidated, and automated.

    But Treasury and OMB have engaged in a bit of trickery here: the blog post announces that the pilot program will “test and explore ways to simplify the reporting process for recipients of federal grants.” There is no mention of contractors, even though the DATA Act requires the pilot program to test the DATA Act data standards for all types of awards.

    The Good, the Bad, the Vague

    Treasury and OMB’s announcement reflects a whole year of work, and it shows. To define the data elements, construct the schema, begin testing new reporting methods, and recruit HHS to lead a government-wide pilot program, Treasury and OMB have invested a great deal of effort. Treasury and OMB must provide strong leadership if the DATA Act’s promises of fully-searchable federal spending data and automatic reporting are to be realized. And they are:

    • Treasury and OMB have acknowledged that existing collection systems, like Treasury’s Government-Wide Treasury Account Symbol (GTAS) system and OMB’s MAX system for budget reports, will change, perhaps to automatically ensure that information submitted to them conforms to the new data standards. This acknowledgment alleviates the danger that the DATA Act might set up two parallel reporting systems – an old-fashioned one and a new, standardized one – a future that the Securities and Exchange Commission has proved dysfunctional.
    • The whole point of the DATA Act is to make federal spending information searchable across the separate reporting requirements that divide it: financial, budget, award. Treasury and OMB have shown they understand this goal by requiring agencies to establish the award identification numbers as the crucial linkage between financial and award information.
    • Treasury and OMB are going to bat for dedicated funding to get all this work done. The Treasury/OMB blog post reports that the President’s budget requests $86 million for DATA Act implementation in Fiscal Year 2016.

    However, there’s one important change Treasury and OMB haven’t chosen to make, and their failure to make it will impede the transparency and usefulness of federal spending information, even fully standardized, for years to come.

    The most controversial of the 57 DATA Act data elements are the ones that identify entities receiving federal awards – grantees, contractors, and other types of recipients. These elements are among the ones that aren’t finalized yet. But Treasury and OMB’s current proposal is to continue using the proprietary DUNS Number – an identification code that is owned by Dun & Bradstreet, itself a private contractor – as the official identification number for recipients and for their parent entities. Federal leaders, inspectors general, program managers, non-governmental transparency organizations, media, and watchdogs cannot use such information without purchasing a license from Dun & Bradstreet.

    Unless Treasury and OMB make a drastic change in response to comments on these data elements and decide to “dump DUNS” and adopt some other identifier for recipients and their parents, Dun & Bradstreet will keep its government-supported monopoly on the identification of recipients. That’s bad news for anyone hoping to use award-related information for transparency or management. Our Coalition hopes to continue pressure to replace the DUNS Number with a nonproprietary one.

    Finally, Friday’s announcement leaves at least two important questions unanswered:

    • Most agencies submit payment requests to Treasury. This payment data is the most detailed information available on federal spending, could be tremendously useful for public accountability and internal management, and isn’t currently available outside Treasury’s Fiscal Service. Three years ago, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Treasury promised that payment data would one day be published, but hasn’t yet taken that action. Nor does Friday’s announcement say whether payment data will be standardized and published as part of the DATA Act effort.
    • The DATA Act requires a pilot program to test the use of data standards in both grantee reporting and contractor reporting. Yet Friday’s announcement unveils a pilot program that is only about the former and ignores the latter. Unless OMB clarifies that the HHS pilot program covers all sorts of recipient reporting – it is not complying with the law.

    Our Coalition is going to keep asking these questions – because agencies, Congress, transparency advocates, and the open data industry all need to know the answers.

    What You Can Do

    After absorbing the announcement, the standards, the guidance, the playbook, the pilot, and this blog post, anyone could be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed.

    The DATA Act, even though Treasury and OMB are striving to implement it without forcing agencies to make expensive system changes, represents a huge undertaking. The law is our best chance of enabling the world’s largest, most complicated organization – the U.S. government – to report its spending in a way that makes the whole operation visible and understandable. The entire corpus of federal spending information has to be transformed into open data. The transformation starts with data standards.

    But assuming you agree with the DATA Act’s mission, you don’t need to commit to years of labor. Here are three things you can do today.

     

    • Make a comment on a DATA Act data element, or the schema, on the Federal Spending Transparency DATA Act and FFATA Collaboration Space. With the federal spending community only just beginning to learn how to use GitHub and absorb the meaning of elements and schema, your early suggestions can have a disproportionate impact.
    • Write down one goal for what you’d like to do with federal spending information, once it’s fully standardized and publicly available, and plan to keep pursuing that goal. Want to be able to match a prospective grantee to all the grants that entity has received from any federal agency? Want to take a Congressional appropriations line item and see the whole life cycle of Treasury accounts, agency obligations and disbursements, awards, and subawards it triggers? Want to follow all the spending activity – external grants and contracts, internal items like total salaries – for a particular program, month by month? The DATA Act says those things should be possible. You can make them happen by insisting on them.
    • Register for the Summit. The DATA Act Summit will bring together everyone who cares about transforming federal spending, on Capitol Hill June 9th and at the Washington Convention Center June 10th. If you’re one of those people, you’ll want to be there. Registration – free for federal employees, discounted for nonprofit advocates and academics – is here. Join us!


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