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Free the Data: eGov and Open Standards

Kundra raised the bar by making government data more readily accessible to its residents

When President Obama appointed his new federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, last week, Kundra announced ambitious plans to "democratize" federal government data by making it accessible in open formats and in data feeds. His plan calls for the creation of a single point of access to all public federal information. The idea is to enable the data to be accessed by developers whose applications will open up federal data to the sunlight of millions of citizens by encouraging them to scrutinize how the Recovery Act's dollars will be spent.

As chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, Kundra raised the bar by making government data more readily accessible to its residents, leveraging pre-existing Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook and YouTube.

Federal agencies are now banding together to plan for how they are going to provide this information in an open, standardized manner that enables citizens to efficiently and accurately mine data, make comparisons, and perform analytics across all government sectors.

All this accessible data sounds well and good until you start looking at it from a developer's point of view - there is currently little or no uniformity across government agencies for reporting granular federal financial data. With billions of dollars being funneled in grants, loans, and loan guarantees, there needs to be a standard ‘open' format and shared re-usable taxonomy for both applications and reporting.

What Can We Anticipate from Kundra?
While Kundra's announcement caused quite a stir in the technology sector, it still remains to be seen if he will have the authority to mandate change or if he will just be a technology advisor to Obama. His role may be limited to making technology recommendations which then have to be adopted into individual agency policies instead of presenting a common technology policy for the government as a whole.

One can only hope that one of Kundra's first recommendations includes leveraging what has become the de facto global financial reporting open standard - XBRL - to tag and track the billions of Recovery Act dollars. The Obama Administration has committed to enabling an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability so Americans know where their tax dollars are going and how they are being spent.

Kundra will have to look no further than to the U.S. SEC's use of RSS feeds and FTP sites to post the recent filings as XBRL. The SEC's bold move enabled developers to build applications to consume and analyze the data in almost real-time with levels of data accuracy and granularity that could never before be achieved with screen-scraping from untagged data or PDF formats. Previously, the information was only available in normalized data feeds from pay-per-view data aggregators. In another encouraging example and move towards transparency from China, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange (SZSE) recently announced that it has rolled out a platform enabling the download of listed companies' information tagged with XBRL. As the global financial community moves to free up data in a more accessible manner, the time is now for the U.S. federal government to take similar actions.

It remains to be seen if XBRL will be adopted to track the disbursement and use of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, enabling more effective regulation and providing investors consistent, comparable reporting on the existing pool of securitized assets. Hopefully, Kundra will be listening when XBRL-US presents its report to the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a hearing today in the U.S. Congress on "Assessing Treasury's Efforts at Preventing Waste and Abuse of TARP Funds." Yet another opportunity to leverage open standards to aid in federal transparency efforts.

In a recent memorandum, the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Director, Peter Orszag, describes a planned May 5th launch of a series of Award Transaction Data Feeds. All federal agencies will now be required to provide all Recovery Act assistance transactions in the standard format currently provided to USASpending.gov. In the memo, Orszag placed a high priority on delivering an "accurate display

" of information related to the Recovery Act on Recovery.gov. Federal agencies are now scrambling to ensure they comply and that all reporting related to Recovery Act funding is complete and accurate.

It's not a "window to the federal data" that will allow developers to leverage and create valuable applications, but rather access to the raw data itself, preferably with open standards-based tags from a shared common federal taxonomy of terms.

We're tired of screen-scrapping and trying to data map disparate data sources across federal government agencies. Hopefully federal agencies like the OMB will listen to Kundra and take a page from Facebook and the iPhone and create an open standards-based platform. Then, the application developers will come in droves.

Building an app is easy when you don't have to worry about shifting data sources, proprietary platforms, and an ever-changing myriad of web services.

Creating a Comprehensive Plan
The key to the success of this plan is to ensure that there is some agreement across all federal agencies that defines a shared common ‘open' data standard and identifies how deeply they are willing to push the tagging of data gathered into the collection processes for Recovery Act funding applications and into the financial reporting between the federal, state, and local agencies who are to be the recipients of the Recovery Act funds. Currently, the plan is to only go one level deep - the federal agency will require recipient reporting only from the primary agency receiving the funds.

For instance, a grant could be given from the Federal government to State A, which then gives a sub grant to City B (within State A), which hires a contractor to construct a bridge, which then hires a subcontractor to supply the concrete. In this case, State A is the prime recipient and would be required to report the sub grant to City B. However, City B does not have any specific reporting obligations - nor does the contractor or subcontractor - for the purposes of reporting to the Recovery.gov website.

In Spain, XBRL has been used right down to the municipal level for the reporting and monitoring of Local Government Budget Reporting; there's no reason not to encourage all levels of government agencies to increase information sharing.

Kundra's Potential Impact on XBRL
Kundra could really drive XBRL forward by insisting that all the data, right down to actual recipients, be made available as long as that data did not breach privacy and security of individuals. As accounting packages and ERP vendors like SAP are all adding XBRL export functionality to their offerings to facilitate SEC filings, it would be a natural next step to get XBRL-tagged reports all the way down to the contractor and sub-contractor levels.

Obama's team should really take a close look at the Dutch and Australian efforts to breakdown the governmental information silos with their move to a Standard Business Reporting (SBR) approach. The Dutch and Australian governments recognized the interdependent nature of government agencies and the increased need for information-sharing via a standards-based approach and are relying heavily on the XBRL standard in their eGov efforts to give their countries an extra edge of efficiency.

Kundra should court developers by providing an open standards-based, open source tool chain, giving examples and explaining in clear language how to create applications in the same manner that Apple and Facebook have done. If built on the solid open data standard foundation laid by U.S. SEC and the XBRL consortium, this should ensure - as long as data is free and open - that applications will flourish and shine some long-awaited sunlight on government spending.

Empower the world's developers to make the Recover.gov data more useful and understandable for users rather than creating reliance on Federal government contractors to develop more websites for displaying data. Developers everywhere are eager to create meaningful applications that will connect users to financial data and solve real-world problems. Free the data, and the application developers will follow.

More Stories By Diane Mueller

Diane Mueller is a leading cloud technology advocate and is the author of numerous articles and white papers on emerging technology. At ActiveState, she works with enterprise IT and community developers to evangelize the next revolution of cloud computing - private platform-as-a-service. She is instrumental in identifying, building, and positioning ActiveState's Stackato cloud application platform. She has been designing and implementing products and applications embedded into mission critical financial and accounting systems at F500 corporations for over 20 years. Diane Mueller is actively involved in the efforts of OASIS/TOSCA Technical Committee working on Cloud Application Portability, works on the XML Financial Standard, XBRL, and has served on the Board of Directors of XBRL International. She currently works as the ActiveState Cloud Evangelist.

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