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Holding Government Accountable: The DATA Act

DATA sq“On April 28, 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature.  The DATA Act is the nation’s first legislative mandate for data transparency (set to) transform U.S. federal spending from disconnected documents into open, standardized data, and to publish that data online.” This comes direct from the Data Transparency Coalition, the advocacy coalition who played a strong role in convincing the Government to hold itself accountable. Besides “addressing rampant waste and fraud in government,” what exactly does this bill mean, and what could lead to in the future?

For some background on the DATA act, lets start with this video, and then read on to see the implications of this passing.


What Just Happened Here?

The Data Act, as an update of the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) – an infinitely less attractive acronym – is yet another demonstration of the long arc now bending toward transparency and open data. It is being billed as a revolution to federal spending by opening up the black box to provide visibility into how the government spends money, thus revealing process and priorities. Further, per the open formats and standards specified, we should be able to apply the rapidly developing sets of data tools to analyze federal spending. This is another step to open government.

Why Does It Matter?

It is presumed that seeing into the spending flows will bring greater accountability to government. If government is to serve the interests of citizens, then we should expect better allocation of federal dollars to public good. There’s even the promise of jobs – thousands of new jobs in data delivery and analysis.

What Can We Do Now That We Couldn’t Before?

General data standards enable information from disparate government agencies to be merged and analyzed due to specific interoperability mandates. Waste, fraud and abuse will have fewer hiding places. Appropriations will be easily accessible by the public and made available in machine-readable formats, e.g. no more stockpiling of pdfs that are great for humans but bad for digital deciphering and compilation. Payments will be searchable by agency: grants, appropriations, contracts as well as data describing grantees and contractors.

Is this enough?

“Enough for what?” is, perhaps, a better question to ask. Will this pending transparency truly revolutionize government in ways that we, the people, can feel it. The Data Transparency Coalition says this is just a beginning and that more reform is needed. What we have, then, is a pretty big demonstration, a taste of the potential for new data practice to deliver real change.

The Near Future

The vast trove of government data lies at the core of attempts to understand complex social problems and underlying systems that accompany our current and fast evolution.  And we seem poised to take advantage now of the opening up information at government scale to identify new correlations, counterintuitive facts and collaborative solutions.

That’s a lot to expect from one piece of legislation, which, like any other depends upon compliance all the way down to the local level. Nevertheless, it is another step in the right direction.

For further information on this first move from the US Government, explore the articles we’ve highlighted in this piece, and be sure to stay up to date with all our news roundup and further opinions from us on Twitter, and of course, direct from Data Transparency Coalition. The President is, in fact, reported to be about to sign the DATA Act any moment now…