Feds advance open data roadmap despite challenges

The DATA Act aims to bring transparency to government spending, but officials are mindful of the compliance burden and cultural challenges in effecting reform.

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Federal authorities are marching ahead with a new framework for opening government data, a process that aims to consolidate department and agency datasets into a standardized format and make them accessible for the public.

Christina Ho, deputy assistant secretary for accounting policy and financial transparency at the Treasury Department, recently provided an update on the rollout of the 2014 DATA Act, a sweeping bill that for the first time mandates a holistic system for making government spending data transparent and freely available.

[ Related: Cultural challenges slow federal open data efforts ]

Ho's team and their counterparts at the Office of Management and Budget have all but finished their work in developing common data standards, she said in an online presentation hosted by Federal Computer Week.

"That is a really big accomplishment," Ho says. "Now that the work on data standard is done, all eyes are on implementation."

Ho explains that the DATA Act aims to break down the siloes in which agency data is often stored, part of a broader cultural transformation seeking to develop a more open and holistic technology environment within the federal government.

In part, the push for open, standardized and searchable data comes from the recognition that the government's approach to the information it collects and stores could be far more efficient than it has been in the past, when agencies have too often squandered a valuable asset by keeping data walled off from other agencies and the public.

"A lot of the data in the government are in disparate systems," Ho says. "The intent is to enable the data to be consumed and used by multiple communities."

DATA Act goal: Standardize federal spending data and make it accessible to public

The DATA Act, with its focus on federal expenditures, looks to shine a light on the arcane and often opaque arena of government contracting, in part by compelling agencies to publish full datasets detailing their spending activities with the ultimate goals of improving efficiencies and reducing waste, fraud and abuse.

Ho says that as Treasury and OMB officials have been developing guidance for agencies, they are sensitive to the potential compliance burden new data mandates could entail, particularly as budgets have remained tight throughout the federal community.

"Data is the only resource we're getting more of every day," she says. "We want to minimize the cost and agency burden. We know that agencies are now operating in an increasingly budget-constrained environment."

[ Related: Feds look to developers to improve big data, open source projects ]

Ho describes a "data-centric approach" to bringing together disparate datasets, and says that the tech teams have been working in an iterative fashion to develop the data standards, with "version 0.5" having been released earlier this summer, and the next phase on track to roll out in the fall.

That way, agency CIOs can absorb the new data requirements gradually, moving toward a more agile development process that is common to the private sector, but hasn't always been embraced inside the government.

"It's a big culture change," Ho says. "Any time that you're trying to transform something it's a significant change-management challenge."

CIOs to manage transition

The DATA Act rollout aims to make federal spending data "standardized, reliable and accessible to the public" by May 2017, Ho says. In the interim, agency CIOs and other leaders will be tasked with organizing a team to manage the data transition, taking inventory of their data assets and establishing a mechanism for reporting spending data in the standardized format.

Ho says her team is working hard to achieve a user-friendly interface for the way the data will ultimately become available to researchers or developers who want to run comparative analyses that could yield new insights into how the government spends taxpayers' money, and reveal potential opportunities for cutting costs.

"We really don't want to treat this as a compliance exercise," Ho says, "because nobody has extra resources around to try to do something that does not create value for agencies."

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