WASHINGTON, June 12, 2016 — The ability to access some government data in a user-friendly and understandable way is now here. A new law and more on the way are to thank for this encouraging development.
Disclosing government information is not really a new concept. Beginning with our country’s Constitutional Convention, disclosing information was seen as highly important to allow citizens to understand how government works and what government is doing. For example, from the outset the U.S. Census Bureau data was made a core part of that effort. Census data has long been used by scores of individuals, groups, journalists, businesses and academics to know who we are as a nation, where we live and how we are changing.
As the 19th century progressed, military and scientific agencies gathered and published weather data, enabling an array of interested parties and organizations to use the data to plan, to grow, to protect and even to profit. Since then, these and countless other informational databases have continued to grow.
Today, the general public is not always aware that the Federal government and its agencies collect unfathomable amounts of useful information involving a seemingly endless number of things involving every sector of our world, ranging from the economy to energy to labor to finance to the environment to foreign influences and more. Think about nearly any topic, and it is highly likely the government has extensive data on the subject.
Too often, however, that information, that raw data has been locked up in computers or in old tech hard files stored in file cabinets n or around the nation’s capital or elsewhere. Much of this data proved highly inaccessible, often hidden away under the guise of being proprietary or sensitive. Moreover, the data, even if available, was was frequently difficult to make sense of or use.
Efforts to gain access to more of this government collected information have always been a mission for many, including the Sunlight Foundation and similar groups. Now, those efforts have taken some impressive steps forward, including recent actions by the U.S. Congress. It’s a genuine victory for those who have long promoted more open and accessible government.
U.S. House of Representatives efforts
The United States House of Representatives recently made public examination of their spending plans and patterns easier to understand and review. On October 21, 2015, the Committee on House Administration voted and passed several measures concerning spending by House members, including the decision to publish the data in a CSV (spreadsheet) file format as opposed to the long in use PDF format, which made the data difficult to extract and evaluate via spreadsheet and calculation software.
Representatives Rodney Davis, R-Pa. and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. led these efforts. Both said the measure will create more transparency and accountability in the House. The postings commenced with the first quarter of FY 2016. Congratulations are in order for this bipartisan House effort.
Now, anyone can access a CSV file of the House’s quarterly “Statement of Disbursements.” (Unfortunately, the slower-to-move U.S. Senate, is still using those difficult to understand PDF files.) The information is easier to examine and review in the new format, which provides all the details, literally to the penny, as to how the House and its members spend taxpayer money.
Now, anyone can now go to The House Disbursements Page and scroll to the section labeled “Searchable Format.” Clicking on either “Detail” or the “Summary Transactions Data” takes you to the relevant information, which includes expenditures connected with the offices of all 435 House members, their delegates, committees, leadership and the House’s Chief Administrative Office as well. Expenditures are listed on everything from technology spending to travel, staff salaries, eand even meals eaten at fast-food restaurants.
U.S. Senate efforts
Next, even more good news. A few weeks ago, a Senate committee recommended consideration of a “full disclosure” bill that was introduced in April. The proposed “OPEN Government Data Act” would transform the Administration’s 2013 open data policy into law, if and when the bill passes the full Senate and House and is signed by the President. It is likely to pass, once again because it has bipartisan support.
The law would require all Federal agencies to publish their information in an open, easily readable and searchable format. It would also require every government agency to maintain a centralized Enterprise Data Inventory listing all data sets as well as a centralized inventory for the entire government.
Once the new Act is implemented, those looking for information will have a much easier time finding it. In turn, finding information such as SEC corporate disclosure documents and Treasury’s and OMB’s use of contractor numbers (called DUNS, for Digital Universal Numbering System), that currently cannot be accessed without purchasing a license, will be easier. Access to this kind of usable information could significantly aid in opening commercial opportunities for many types of companies.
The pending Senate bill would expand on a related prior related law, the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), which requires the Federal government to express spending information as open data. Larger in scope than the DATA Act, which was limited strictly to spending and financial regulation, the new bill would make all collected Federal government data easy to access and read.
Private Sector: “Data USA”
Where the government treads, private industry races to make things better. In April, a new website went live, driving data nerds crazy with glee. See for yourself by accessing Data USA to view stunning visualizations of government-gathered data collections. Funded by Deloitte, the website was developed by the MIT media lab. Featuring data in pictures and stories makes all the boring stuff fun.
Dr. Patricia Buckley, who serves as director of economics at Deloitte Services LP, notes:
“Data USA provides the tools to transform data into millions of stories about America – its people, places, industries, occupations, skill sets and educational institutions – to better understand our populations, visualize critical national issues, and improve how we live and work both today and in the future.”
By way of example, suppose you were interested in what government data says about the District of Columbia. Click on the DC link at Data USA’s website to explore demographics, housing, education and transit data for the nation’s capitol.
Analysts comparing current searches of government databases to those appearing on Data USA will find they’re as different as night and day. Imagine going into a grocery store where every item was packaged in the same sized brown box. You’d have to open each one to discover the Twinkies or the milk. That would be the government platform. With Data USA, the search process quality and functionality are exponentially easier. Nevertheless, both the recent Federal and private sector efforts in this regard are commendable.
Future financial disclosure possibilities?
Hopefully, the future will bring us even more legal and financial sunshine, shedding light, for example, on the origins of the “dark money” that has become a key issue in the political contributions arena.
The insurance industry, for one, does not want us to know which candidates or causes they support or how much they give. Last week, shareholders of Aetna and Anthem rejected measures that would compel them to disclose their donations to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, which are allowed to engage in political activity so long as it is not their primary activity.
Similar measures by activist Aetna shareholders to require self-disclosure failed in 2012, 2014 and 2015. In 2012, Aetna gave more than $7 million to groups working to defeat the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). This fact was accidentally disclosed. What a surprise.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the health insurance industry has spent $73 million on lobbying in 2015, and their PACs and employees have given $13 million to candidates, parties and PACs so far this year.
Concluding thoughts: Disclosing important stuff is good. Nonetheless, some things are best kept private. Things like not kissing and telling. Oops again. Not so much for those inappropriately involved with politicians.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.