How Data is Radically Changing the Federal Government

By making information accessible to the public, agencies are serving citizens more effectively.

Government agencies tend to be cautious about trying new things. Public servants have the responsibility to be prudent when they spend taxpayer dollars and even small changes to a government program can affect thousands and sometimes millions of people. Until recently, the risks associated with change were too great, but today, several federal agencies are embracing technology and data in new ways to make government more responsive to people’s needs. They’re doing it by making information that was previously difficult to find and interpret more widely available to the public. Think of it as democratizing data.

Two years ago, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, known as the DATA Act, tasked the federal government with transforming spending information into open data. The legislation recognized the value of machine-readable data to do things that were impossible with paper documents and other antiquated reporting systems.

While the DATA Act’s full implementation won’t happen overnight—it hits the executive branch in May 2017—agencies are applying this approach to other valuable information resources and realizing the benefits of democratized data.

Consider the U. S. Agency for International Development, which “works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.” The agency supports efforts around health, economic growth, access to clean water, and gender equality, among others. USAID is using shared data as the foundation for action.

In 2014, the agency unveiled an open data policy, claiming that “for the first time in history, we have the tools, technologies and approaches to end extreme poverty within two decades.” The new policy set forth a framework for their partners to submit information to a publicly-accessible data repository, called the Data Development Library.

Since its launch, USAID has and continues to use data from the field to gain insights to shape future global work. The agency’s partners also benefit by using the data to support, understand, and improve program outcomes. The Data Development Library works because USAID knows that machine-readable data isn’t the end goal, rather it’s the foundation upon which insights and better outcomes are built.

While USAID is helping people abroad, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are looking out for citizens’ health in the United States. Under the Affordable Care Act, CMS is required to collect and display information about payments and gifts to physicians and teaching hospitals from pharmaceutical manufacturers and group purchasing organizations. CMS now freely shares this valuable data with the public on the CMS Open Payments website.

The Open Payments site collects information about financial relationships between doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturers, which may involve money for research activities, gifts, speaking fees, meals, or travel. The site provides simple tools to search for a doctor or teaching hospital that has received payments, or for a company that has provided payments.

This level of transparency was unprecedented when the site launched in 2015. John Oliver, host of HBO’s Emmy Award-winning Last Week Tonight, dedicated a segment to the topic and encouraged his viewers to visit Today, users can explore and access more than 28 million records to better understand the nearly $17 billion in payments made between 2013 and 2015 in order to make more informed healthcare decisions.

Like CMS, the Federal Communications Commission harnesses the power of open data to help consumers make better decisions. If you have a problem with your internet service provider, or if you’d like to stop receiving robo-calls, you can share your complaint with the FCC. Until recently, there was no easy way for the public to see how many other people were experiencing similar issues. They would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request, or search for records from the agency, and even when they found the information, the agency’s spreadsheets were difficult to decipher and lacked context. In May 2016, this changed when the FCC launched the Consumer Complaint Data Center.

The Consumer Complaint Data Center makes granular complaint data available to the public and it’s automatically updated every day. Citizens are finally able to understand telecommunications issues and visually see how many other consumers are facing the same challenges. Since launching, the customer complaint data application programming interface (API) has been accessed more than 3 million times.

The FCC considers this a major step forward and following the site’s success, they are now exploring other ways to use data to develop performance metrics and drive operational efficiency.

While these agencies are taking steps to democratize data, many federal agencies and subagencies are still using paper and other archaic systems to collect information. It will take broad support to transform government information from disconnected documents into open data. That’s why I am such a staunch supporter of the Data Foundation, which advocates the publication of government information as standardized, open data.

For those looking for more information about federal progress in opening up more data to the public, on Sept. 28 the Data Foundation will host Data Transparency 2016, Washington's largest-ever open data event, bringing together government leaders, transparency advocates, and the technology industry to discuss open data in management and regulation, as well as explore the future of the Obama administration’s efforts through the White House Open Data Innovation Summit.

Kevin Merritt is the founder and CEO of Socrata and a Data Foundation board member.