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Beth Noveck's Transparency Suggestions For Bringing Better Data Through the DATA Act

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, July 7 2011

Two competing initiatives from the House of Representatives and White House respectively fall short of their stated goal to increase transparency around government spending, former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government Beth Noveck and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute computer science professor Jim Hendler write in a blog post dated Tuesday.

Rep. Darrell Issa's DATA Act — sweeping legislation that would fundamentally change the way the federal government reports its spending — currently would not require that corporations identify their ownership to the federal government, Noveck and Hendler write. They also said that a White House executive order that calls for similar steps to those mandated in the DATA Act also fell short.

In the same way that draft rules from the Securities Exchange Commission would require ownership disclosure in certain complex financial transactions, the write, "it is entirely doable to add simple provisions to the DATA bill that would mandate disclosure of the ownership and structure of recipients at whatever level of specificity will best enable the public to know who is really receiving the money and how they relate to other recipients."

Building on elements in the DATA Act that mandate a single set of data collection standards, Hendler and Noveck, an academic who is now working with the government of the U.K., write that the legislation should also do more to specify the way spending is recorded. The end result should be "a single, universal, entity identifier for naming firms with the requirement that additional data fields be open and interoperable," so that data from different agencies and organizations can be put to use in the same application.

And the DATA Act should build a process for constructing this federal spending system iteratively, Noveck and Hendler write:

We don’t understand the problem of inconsistent spending reporting well enough to design -- whether by the legislative or executive branch -- "the" system. Instead, we ought to be allowing small-scale pilots (potentially funded by prize-backed challenges) seeing what works, and trying again. Further, if the data is made available in machine-readable ways, new systems to make the data more transparent and useful can and will arise outside the government through crowsourced design and use.

Noveck was an engine for open government and citizen-government collaboration while at the White House, pioneering intiatives such as Peer to Patent, one of the federal government's first-ever crowdsourcing initiatives.