So, this really is a big deal. Last Thursday, April 10th, 2014, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). The DATA Act, a mandate to the U.S. Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget to develop a standardized format for the reporting and publication of all federal spending disclosures, will ultimately allow the public access to financial information in a manner more suitable for use in the world of modern technology.
Consider this. The DATA Act is easily the most significant open-government legislation since the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives, where passage is expected soon. It has been three years since the time U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced this legislation for data transparency and has the potential to transform the relationship between the federal government and its citizens. Further, on behalf of Teradata, I would like to thank our headquarters home state senator, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), for his sponsorship of this milestone bill.
To date, most government spending information is published in document-based formats and while this may be desirable for humans to read, it poses a significant hurdle to those seeking access to the raw data. To some, the reason for wanting access to the raw data is apparent, however, for those who are less familiar, allow me to explain.
First, what is raw data? Think of raw data as data that has not been processed in any way - no analytics, no summarizations, no mathematics, etc. Such data is usually generated and stored in enterprise systems and is the result of the systems performing their intended functions. For example, in a banking system, each transaction a customer performs creates data that is stored in the system’s database, with each element of the transaction such as, time, date, amount, customer, transaction type, etc. stored separately in a uniquely. At this point, I’m getting perilously close to having to explain how a database works, so I’ll that you’ll forgive me if I refer you to Google if you wish to learn more. The key point to understand is that every element of data is stored separately and distinctly from every other element.
Ok, so what? If you have after looked at a detailed spreadsheet with 100’s of columns and hundreds of thousands rows, you are seeing a pretty good representation of raw data. And, you might be asking, why in the world would anyone want that? It’s seemingly impossible to discern any insight beyond “This is a lot of data.” However, data that is highly structured into rows and columns is a highly desirable format for a computer and someone who wishes to analyze data.
At the end of the day, boiling it all down, this is why the DATA Act is so important. It is mandating that the financial data generated, collected and stored by the Federal Government be made available so that computers and people who wish to analyze the data can. That’s right; it really does boil down to something this simple.
Access to raw data in “a widely-accepted, nonproprietary, searchable, platform-independent computer readable format” will offer the ability for organizations outside government to analyze the information and the possible benefits to the American people can be dramatic. With new people and organizations analyzing the data here’s a few new insights we could see:
- The ability to see where tax dollars are spent at a detailed level
- Discrepancies in spending that may suggest fraud, waste, abuse
- Ideas to more efficiently or effectively spend tax dollars for the betterment of all
- New business opportunities that could lead to the creation of new jobs
There are many other possibilities, limited only to the creativeness and curious nature of those who care to dig into the data.
Sounds good right?
Of course, creating a law and implementing a law are always two different things and there will be, undoubtedly, challenges in getting this implemented, not the least of which may be, agreeing on the structure and labeling of the data. (Unique identifiers for Federal awards and entities receiving Federal awards that will be consistently applied Government-wide.) However, this is not as much a technical challenge as it is a people challenge as some folks are going to have to do things a little differently.
Hopefully, all those involved will agree to agree to get this done and not get too caught up, as people are wont to do, in the old cliché, “but that’s not how we've always done it.”
If you want to learn more about the DATA Act and the Data Transparency Coalition, I encourage you to visit www.datacoalition.org.