Opening the Doors to our Open Data Agenda


As “the first-ever federal open data conference“, Data Transparency 2013 was bound to break new ground. For the first time, White House officials and Congressional leaders joined transparency oriented organizations and leaders in the tech industry–all focused on standardizing and publishing federal data. We made real progress: the Treasury Department endorsed the DATA Act and the House Oversight Committee announced an investigation aimed at persuading the SEC to restart its stalled progress toward open data in corporate disclosure. The gathering also gave us a chance to collect all those groups’ suggestions on an even more ambitious project.

We are seeking to create a policy agenda for the Data Transparency Coalition that will open up the federal government’s whole data portfolio. That project received a huge boost from Data Transparency 2013. 

In seven breakout sessions, conference attendees representing over 30 federal agencies, 70 tech and consulting firms, and 40 nonprofits collaborated to develop policy recommendations in seven key federal domains: spending, management, financial regulation, general regulation, tax policy, legislation and the Code, and the judiciary. With so many brilliant minds and different perspectives in one place, we sought a crowd-sourced vision for the road ahead for open data. We invited those following the conference hashtag #opendata2013 to add their ideas as well. 

All of these recommendations will inform the Data Transparency Coalition’s formal policy agenda — to be released this fall.



Dr. Pardo‘s exercise in time-pressure policymaking.

Dr. Theresa Pardo, director of SUNY-Albany’s Center for Technology in Government, ably emceed the breakouts. Then, in less than an hour, she summarized everyone’s recommendations for a brief presentation at the end of the conference.

Participants in each of our seven issue areas were asked for three to five clear, measurable policy recommendations for Congress and the executive branch. Here’s what they told us.
 

Spending

The session on federal spending oversight came up with one overriding goal to promote data standardization in federal spending: require the use of consistent codes across government. There were suggestions to create a new body, such as a public advisory committee, to provide input on common data standards for spending. Participants also proposed that detailed data on payments to vendors should be released to the public. The DATA Act would mandate these reforms, and more.

Management and Performance

The management and performance group proposed designating points-of-contact for open data, felt the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should be more aggressive in fulfilling its statutory mandate to create an inventory of federal programs, and the need for better training of sources, analysts, and users of federal data to ensure quality. They also called for better documentation of the process of using and reporting data to capture institutional knowledge over time.

Financial Regulation

Our financial regulation group also picked up on the theme of data quality. They recommended pre-filing consistency checks, post-filing audits, improved posting speed, and linking datasets to detect inconsistencies. They rejected proprietary formats like CUSIP and DUNS in favor of an open, common set of identifiers for legal entities. Participants suggested that a public-interest advisory board in this area could be modeled on the UK’s Open Data Institute. These recommendations track the Financial Industry Transparency Act, whose reintroduction the Coalition is seeking.

General Regulation

This group was ambitious. They proposed an Executive Order to make federal regulations machine readable by default. They also noted the government still has yet to publish a structured federal agency organization chart. Participants also argued that vendors should be prohibited from privatizing and reselling government data that isn’t open in the procurements and contracting process.

Tax

Our tax reformers took a balanced approach — seeking to get the information public while also striving to improve quality. They proposed the adoption of uniform data standards across all states for tax reporting. But they also suggested creating a “safe harbor” to enable the federal government to release public tax data, such as nonprofits’ filings on Form 990, in its raw form without fearing that it contains imperfections. They called on Congress to require nonprofits to file Form 990 electronically and direct the IRS to release that data in an open format.
 
Legislation and the Code

First, our legislative breakout participants stressed the importance of opening up information about the Congressional committee process — providing digital copies of testimony, establishing meeting identifiers, and even simply publishing calendars of upcoming activity. No more, participants said, should we be forced to “scrape” online calendars to know what’s happening in both chambers. They also argued that the Congressional Record should be machine-readable. Finally, they underscored the need to unite data standards governing bills and laws–ultimately allowing automatic red-lining to show how proposed legislation would amend the U.S. Code.
 
Judicial

The breakout group focusing on open data in the justice system identified several much-needed overhauls. One of these suggestions was to use Congressional funding to open up the PACER system from a “walled garden” to allow citizens to download data in bulk for free. They called on the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts to create and enforce standard data and metadata formats for judicial opinions within the federal court system. And although it seems a bit absurd to have to advocate for this — the final, official versions of the law must be open to the public. There is no reason, our participants said, for government to create and enforce barriers (such as federal copyrights) to public domain law.
 

Moving Forward

Our Data Transparency 2013 breakout sessions were our second, and most ambitious, effort at collaborative agenda-setting for open data. (The first happened at the Sunlight Foundation‘s Transparency Camp last spring.)

Our next step will be to prepare and publish an Open Data Agenda, informed by our breakouts’ recommendations, that covers all these areas. Then, patiently, we’ll work with Congress and the executive branch to see every one of them become reality.

It’ll take time. But we believe an Open Data Agenda can transform our government.