The Data Transparency Conference, held Sept. 10 in Washington, D.C., brought big names and experienced professionals together to move the open government data conversation toward informed implementation.
A marked difference at this conference was the unspoken acceptance of basic principles compared to the past 4 years of open data conferences. No one was debating the meaning of “data”; instead, talks centered on operational details. Challenges, notably in the areas of standardization and metadata, are being met with varying degrees of frustration and success.
At one point, speaker David Lebryk, head of the Treasury Department’s Fiscal Service, said that “history does not travel in a straight line.” The conference presentations made it clear that while federal open data adoption is not developing in a linear fashion, the overall direction is forward.
As the conference convener, the Data Transparency Coalition (DTC) advocates for “policies that require federal agencies to publish their data online, using standardized, machine-readable, nonproprietary identifiers and markup languages.” Led by former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) lawyer Hudson Hollister, the current focus of the coalition is passage of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.
Better known as the DATA Act, it amends the law that created USAspending.gov to require more rigorous standards and meaningful metadata for federal spending reports. DTC explains that requirements in the DATA Act “will standardize and publish the U.S. government’s wide variety of reports and data compilations related to financial management, procurement, and assistance.” Passage is seen as critical to getting all agencies to follow through on the current White House initiatives that are not directly linked to congressional oversight.
“Agencies can’t or won’t get there by themselves,” noted Earl Devaney, former chair of the Recovery and Transparency Board, who spoke about lessons learned from operating the groundbreaking Recovery.gov website. (The Government Accountability Office just released a report on the topic, “Opportunities Remain to Incorporate Recovery Act Lessons Learned,” GAO-13-871T, Sept. 18, 2013.)
Influential federal policymakers took turns at the podium in the morning, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and Deputy CTO of the United States Nick Sinai among them. Other speakers included representatives of major executive branch open data programs and relevant congressional policy staff.
This was not Data Basics 101. Many of the conversations were about interagency cooperation, work with international standards bodies, and congressional oversight. The 40 or more exhibitors from startups and established firms that were already building products with government data were a visible reminder that the private sector has advanced beyond buzzwords.
Some of the conference highlights included:
- Chairman Issa informed attendees that his committee has approved the DATA Act, and it should be coming to the House floor soon for a vote. He believes that changes made to an earlier version will bring the Senate and White House on board. Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee staff members quickly followed up with the news that they are taking up the bill and hope to report on it in October. Issa also announced his letter to the SEC citing its lack of progress in processing and using financial statements data in the required digital, structured, XBRL format. Craig Lewis, director of the SEC Division of Economic and Risk Assessment, spoke later in the day. He attributed the slow adoption of XBRL to a learning curve that will be overcome and noted he had just used SEC XBRL for a risk assessment project.
- The Treasury Department is working toward implementing governmentwide financial data standards. Fiscal Service Commissioner Lebryk emphasized the importance of working across the government and with outside groups to implement “intelligent data,” or data assigned standardized, documented metadata. The Treasury is working on developing and implementing Global Legal Entity Identifiers, a system of alphanumeric codes to uniquely identify organizations involved in financial transactions. More background on the identifiers is available from the Treasury Office of Financial Research. The Data Transparency Coalition is advocating for a Financial Industry Transparency Act that would require the use of entity identifiers; such a bill has not yet been introduced in this Congress.
- Jeanne Holm of Data.gov announced Next.Data.gov, a replacement for Data.gov that is under development and available to the public for review. The site provides links for feedback, and Holm is actively involving interested developers in its evolution. She is also involved with Project Open Data, a wider effort to involve the public in open government data development. Developers at the conference got a boost from her positive assessment of this unique project.
Open government data advocates usually cite one of two major benefits: improved government accountability and operational efficiency or new opportunities for the private sector to reuse and resell the data and use it to improve their own competitiveness.
Highlights for the economic opportunity camp were refreshingly plentiful:
- RR Donnelley and PwC were major corporate sponsors, sharing the limelight with scores of other private sector sponsors and exhibitors. Startups were given complimentary tabletop exhibit space. See the full list of exhibitors at the DTC website.
- Joel Gurin of Open Data Now promoted the New York University’s GovLab project, OPEN DATA 500. It is described on the site as “the first comprehensive census of U.S.-based companies using open government data.”
- Luther Lowe, public policy director for Yelp, talked about how Yelp is working with the cities of San Francisco and Louisville, Ky. to incorporate public data into the Yelp review site. He sees much more potential in this area.
- Deputy CTO Sinai envisions “whole new industries created from open data” in the future. He mentioned a handful of data entrepreneurs, including iTriage, LLC in the consumer health sector and The Climate Corporation in the agricultural risk management business. Sinai also emphasized that open government data is not just for startups, citing Zillow and Trulia in the real estate area.