Tech Firms Push For Government Data Transparency
April 17, 2012

Tech Firms Push For Government Data Transparency

A growing number of technology companies and non-profit organizations have joined forced to press the U.S. government to establish a standard system by which federal data is published online.

The non-partisan alliance, dubbed the Data Transparency Coalition (DTC), was launched on Monday, and includes companies such as Microsoft, Teradata and several other data analysis and management firms.

The group said the federal government publishes its online data in too many formats, and requires contractors and grant recipients to submit information in multiple formats.

"Americans deserve easy access to their government's information," the coalition said on its website, also launched on Monday.

"Federal data should be published online in electronic formats that make the data easy to search, sort and download. When separate federal agencies publish similar data, they should use standardized formats so that government-wide searches are possible.”

The D.C.-based coalition is being advised by several prominent open government advocates, including Earl Devaney, former chair of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, and Beth Noveck, former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer.

One of the coalition´s urgent goals is to push Congress to pass the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act, sponsored by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA).

The bill, introduced last June, creates an independent board to track all federal spending on a single website, and requires agencies to report data in a standardized format.

The legislation would also require that government agencies use standard identifier codes and markup languages, such as XBRL, to simplify data searches.

Representative Issa said he sponsored the DATA Act to help promote a "transparent and accountable government the American people deserve."

Under the current system, extracting government data from federal agencies is cumbersome and difficult, said DTC executive director Hudson Hollister, who helped craft the DATA Act as former counsel to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  He left the position in January.

In many cases, agencies do not even publish spending data, regulatory filings, corporate disclosures or legislative actions online, he told PCWorld.

"The government's not managing its data.”

"There's nobody in charge of figuring out standard markup language to report it. There's nobody minding the store looking at the whole enterprise."

The lack of standard data formats and standard processes that identify award recipients creates confusion about how the government spends money, Hollister said.

For instance, on the website, where federal spending is currently tracked, award recipients show up multiple times during searches because their names are spelled in different ways, he said.

"Because we don't have standard identifiers, we can't properly track federal spending.”

"We can't aggregate all the grants and contract awards a contractor receives.”

DTC members have services that use federal data, and standardization of formats would assist their efforts, Hollister said.

In addition to the business benefits, improved data transparency would allow citizens to better understand their government and its budgets, he added.

"The only way for citizens and the government to understand what's being spent is to track every dollar.”

The DATA Act has strong support from the leadership in the House of Representatives, and could be brought to a vote within the next several days, Hollister said.

The coalition also supports other proposed legislation, including the Public Online Information Act, sponsored by Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), which would mandate federal laws or regulations with public information requirements to be published online in machine-readable formats.

“For years people in the executive branch have been talking about e-government and big data,” Hollister said.

“Those two phrases have become buzz words. The standardization of federal data is what´s needed to make both concepts work.”