In Case You Missed It: Top 5 Takeaways from DT2015


Thanks to Herschel Chandler of Information Unlimited, Inc. for co-authoring this post.

Open data experts from across the country convened in Washington, DC last week for Data Transparency 2015. The program, featuring more than 50 speakers, focused on the need for standardization and publication of government data. If Pope Francis-induced traffic kept you from trekking downtown for DT2015, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with the top 5 takeaways.

DT2015 covered all three of the areas where key policy changes are transforming government data in the United States. Whether you cared about government management and the DATA Act, market data and the Financial Transparency Act, or transforming Congressional information from documents into open data – there was something at DT2015 for you.

 

1. The SBA does the DATA Act! And confirms data standardization isn’t that hard.

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Small Business Administration Deputy Chief Financial Officer Tim Gribben (pictured, center) led attendees through the SBA’s process for applying the DATA Act’s new government-wide data standards to its spending information – and using the newly-standardized data to generate insights into its own spending.

With help from Treasury, the SBA is working on a new project to keep track of where the agency is making grant awards, what program each grants is part of, and how much each grant recipient has used over time. That analysis brings together different categories of the SBA’s spending information – categories that used to be incompatible before the DATA Act standards brought them together.

Even though the SBA’s financial systems aren’t as complex as many agencies’, the project is a great testbed for developing and refining a DATA Act process that can be used by any agency. The process can be scaled to fit larger, more complex agencies’ situations.

The SBA’s project also helped Treasury understand what didn’t work – an equally valuable lesson to be shared across government. Under the law, every agency must apply the DATA Act standards to its own spending information by May 2017.

So, what does the SBA’s pilot program show about the future of the DATA Act?

It confirms what the Treasury Department has been gently suggesting to agencies: standardizing spending data, and making good use of it, isn’t that hard. All that’s needed is a data crosswalk requiring more conversation than coding.

Mr. Gribben now has new insight into how his agency spends our tax money – with a relatively small amount of effort for this first leap in analytical capability. “I never had this linkage [between financial systems and award systems] before,” he said. “From the CFO’s perspective, I [could] only see anything at the program level, but I [could] never get down to an award level like this. I [could] never see where the awards were made. I’d have to go to the program office and pull it out of their source system.” Gribben can now respond instantly to data calls that before took days and untold hours of labor to produce.

SBA put the Treasury Department’s DATA Act Playbook into practice by helping Treasury develop a template that all agencies can use to standardize their data. Treasury calls the template – which is being offered open-source – a “data broker.”

Data brokers are nothing new. The challenge of matching a unique organization’s spending information to a generalized template is one industry has solved many times. But this challenge has never been tackled across the entire federal government. SBA’s work shows the challenge can be met, with worthwhile results.

If you missed Gribben’s talk at DT2015, don’t despair. He’ll be back by popular demand at the Coalition’s next Data Transparency Breakfast this Oct. 20.

 

2. Congressman Darrell Issa vows to pass the Financial Transparency Act.

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Reflecting on the success of his DATA Act, which mandates government-wide data standards for federal spending, Darrell Issa (R-CA) vowed to pass the Financial Transparency Act, which makes the same changes in financial regulatory reporting. “This is the opening round for open data,” said Issa. “There are companies that will take advantage of it and make fortunes. There are nonprofits that will take advantage of it and embarrass people in the administration, not just this one but the one to come.”

Most U.S. financial regulators use different formats and standards to organize the information they collect from regulated entities. Consistent data standards would make regulatory filings more transparent, useful, and efficient for everyone who generates, collects, and uses the information they contain.

Rep. Issa’s Financial Transparency Act, H.R. 2477 (full text), which is gaining momentum in the House with 23 bipartisan cosponsors, would require the eight major U.S. financial regulatory agencies to adopt consistent data fields and formats for the information they already collect from industry under existing securities, commodities, and banking laws. For information that existing laws already require them to publish, the legislation directs agencies to make such information available online as open data — electronically searchable, downloadable in bulk, and without license restrictions.

Make sure to check out the Coalition’s Financial Transparency Act infographic.

 

3. Treasury Fiscal Assistant Secretary Dave Lebryk shows the first public images of the future spending transparency platform.

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Executive Branch speakers gave attendees a first look at how the DATA Act is changing federal spending. Fiscal Assistant Secretary Dave Lebryk showed the first public images of the future spending transparency platform, a successor to USASpending.gov.

“We are interested in what the next generation of USASpending will look like,” Mr. Lebryk said. “We’re asking you to join us in that. We don’t have to have this in place until May of 2017 [the DATA Act’s publication deadline comes in 2018], but it’s not too early to start.”

Mr. Lebryk announced plans to launch an early beta site to allow the public to shape the future USAspending.gov (or a successor site). The public will be able to post input and ideas to contribute to the design of the site.

 

4. Leadership from Congressional digital directors and executive branch agitators brings data transparency for law and regulation front and center.

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Seamus Kraft, Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation, led a discussion on government efforts to publish original legal materials – laws, bills, and regulations – as data instead of just documents. “Our laws are the most important data set in the United States, but lawmaking and legal data remain largely locked in yesterday’s paper-based world. Legislation and regulation should be the easiest things for a citizen or a government worker to find and interact with on the Internet, not the hardest.”

Kraft thinks that’s changing, thanks in large part to the efforts of open data advocates working inside government. Those leaders include panelists Dave Zvenyach of GSA’s 18F; Amy Bunk, Director of Legal Affairs and Policy, Office of the Federal Register;  and Valerie Brecher Kovacevic, who runs Regulations.gov and FOIAOnline.gov.

Shortly before the regulators’ discussion, a panel of Congressional Digital Directors took the state. Thanks to their leadership in Congress, open-source procurement and standardized formats for Congressional information are entering the mainstream – which is great news for Congress’ ability to do its job and the electorate’s ability to connect with Congress.

 

5. The DATA Act envisions an open data future for both grants and contracts – but HHS’ leadership on grant reporting highlights the government’s lack of progress on contractor reporting.

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From left to right: Mike Peckham, Director, DATA Act Program Management Office, Department of Health and Human Services, Ann Ebberts, CEO, Association of Government Accountants (moderator), and Chris Zeleznik, Senior Policy Advisor, Department of Health and Human Services.

Ann Ebberts, CEO of the Association of Government Accountants, kicked off DT2015’s Government Management track with a panel discussion on the future of open data for grants and contracts. Ms. Ebberts and the panel discussed the future of the DATA Act’s Section 5 pilot, which sets out to test automating reporting requirements for recipients. The Section 5 pilot could reduce the burden these entities experience in reporting on federal funds received and expended.

While OMB has designated HHS to lead the pilot for grantee reporting, represented by Mr. Peckham and Mr. Zeleznik, no agency or entity has been appointed to conduct the same work for contractor reporting. There’s hope that soon, grantees will be able to fulfill their compliance obligations automatically, thanks to DATA Act standards. But for contractors, nobody is running the show.