Yesterday, thirteen tech companies and one nonprofit organization launched the Data Transparency Coalition. Our ambition is to be the main private-sector voice for federal data reform. We want the government to publish its information online and use consistent data identifiers and markup languages to make the information useful.
The U.S. government’s public data – spending records, program performance, regulatory filings, corporate disclosures, legislative actions, judicial documents, and much more – is poorly managed. Too often, each separate federal agency organizes like data in unlike ways. Every agency has a separate system of electronic identifiers for grants and contracts. There is no government-wide list of federal programs. Financial regulators all collect similar, even overlapping information from a single industry, and yet they identify the companies in disparate ways and collect filings in incompatible electronic formats. Congress and the judicial branch are no better.
Our government’s failure to deploy data standards has real costs. Because federal spending information isn’t standardized, waste and fraud go undetected. Taxpayers cannot watch their money being spent and inspectors general can’t use analytics to find corruption. And there is no way to tie performance information to spending levels.
Because financial regulatory reporting isn’t standardized, companies must submit the same information many times – for example, more than two-thirds of the data reported to the Bureau of Economic Analysis is also filed, separately, with the SEC. And nobody – neither financial regulators nor market analysts – can easily digest all of a company’s filings or search them together to find hidden leverage or systemic risk.
Other countries’ governments have already started to use data standards to deliver better transparency, better efficiency, better enforcement, and lower compliance costs. Brazil’s government reports all its spending – grants, contracts, salaries, government credit card expenditures, everything – on a single public platform. Australia and the Netherlands are standardizing their regulatory reporting. In the United Kingdom, companies fulfill their business reporting and tax reporting obligations by submitting a single report.
Why has the government of the United States – which boasts the world’s largest, most innovative tech sector – failed to manage its data? Perhaps it’s because U.S. federal agencies are bigger, and spend more on IT, than their counterparts in almost any other nation. Each agency has had the resources to design its own unique infrastructure. Perhaps it’s because our Founders separated powers among the branches and gave us a system in which Congress and the executive branch often oppose one another – which makes executive reorganization hard. Perhaps it’s because our technology entrepreneurs and our bureaucrats speak different languages.
The reasons for our government’s technological backwardness are unclear, but the solution isn’t. No campaign for federal data reform exists. We will create one.
Our opportunity is ripe:
- Tech companies are already creating big-data tools that would be far more powerful if the U.S. government deployed consistent identifiers and markup languages for its own data. Silicon Valley is eager to show (and sell) its work.
- Americans are already frustrated by a government that spends wastefully, doesn’t track the spending accurately, and requires duplicative paperwork. If we educate them on data transparency, they’ll demand it from their representatives.
- The executive branch has shown interest in revealing its data to the public in a structured fashion, deploying Big Data tools, and using its regulatory powers to require consistent electronic structures for disclosure. We can find ways to expand these initiatives from pilot to policy.
- Practical proposals for federal data reform already exist. For the first time, for instance, Congress is showing willingness to require agencies to standardize their spending data, and the White House seems to agree.
It already boasts a fascinating cross-section of the industry: market leaders, brand-new start-ups, and leading financial reporting providers from the United States, France, and India. And we’re pleased to welcome former Recovery Board chairman Earl Devaney, former U.S. deputy CTO Beth Noveck, XBRL US president Campbell Pryde, Jim Harper of the Cato Institute and Eric Gillespie of Viano Capital to our board of advisors.
Our mission is comprehensive federal data reform. We’ll identify and support proposals in each federal data sector, starting with the DATA Act for federal spending, the Financial Industry Transparency Act for financial regulation, the Public Online Information Act to establish a presumption of transparency for all federal data, the Legal Entity Identifier to connect separate financial reporting regimes, and, soon, legislation to study the possibility of standard business reporting in the United States. For each of these proposals, we’ll bring our campaign to the halls of Congress, the start-up incubators of Silicon Valley, and the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of connected, concerned Americans.
We’ll also work to connect innovators in the private sector with government data problems. Our members’ products and services can automatically standardize messy data compilations, instantly find indicators of wasteful spending and fraudulent behavior, and use open data to help people make better decisions. We’ll host some amazing demonstrations on our website.
If you care about data transparency, we need your help.
- Please help us spread the word about our launch. You’ll find our press release here and our introductory video here. Blog about ’em! Tweet ’em!
- Help us build our audience for the campaign for federal data reform. Every Facebook Like and every Twitter follow counts.
- We continue to seek members and funding! If you find yourself in the sudden possession of a tech company or a nonprofit that cares about government transparency – well, you know whom to call.