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.