Data Transparency 2013: An Open Data Benchmark

Blog from Joel Gurin (first posted at

 DTC edited

Yesterday in Washington, DC, our friends at the Data Transparency Coalition put on a first-time conference on Data Transparency 2013: The Future of Open Data Policy. As you can see on Twitter at #opendata2013, the conference attracted a diverse and engaged audience – more than 400 registrants from government, nonprofits, and Open Data Companies. The driving force behind the meeting, and behind the Data Transparency Coalition itself, is Hudson Hollister, whom I interviewed last spring.

As Hudson explained then, a core goal for the coalition is passage of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act. The DATA Act has strong bipartisan support, which was also in evidence at yesterday’s event. The event featured keynotes by Nick Sinai, Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. in the White House, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Republican Darrell Issa, co-sponsor of the DATA Act, plus a lunchtime talk by House Democrat Jared Polis, a DATA Act supporter.

Open Data is a force multiplier for fraud prevention.

I had a chance to speak on the opening panel together with three government Open Data pioneers. Jeanne Holm, Evangelist for, talked about new plans for, the federal hub for more than four hundred thousand open datasets. Earl Devaney, former Chairman of the Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board, described how transparency was “a force multiplier for fraud prevention” for the hundreds of billions spent through the Recovery Act. And Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary of Water and Science for the U.S. Department of the Interior, described the wealth of geospatial resources now available at

I was there representing the GovLab at NYU, where I now serve as senior advisor. The GovLab has a strong focus on the uses of government Open Data f0r public good, and is now launching the Open Data 500, a project I’m directing to find and study companies using government Open Data. More on that in this blog soon.

Government data should operate like a Toyota, not a Rolls Royce

Data Transparency 2013 was a day for thought-provoking speeches and panels, great conversations, and demos from dozens of companies using Open Data. Some of the highlights:

  •  Hudson Hollister’s goals statement: “We want to transform government data from paper and plain text into data that is structured, standardized, and accessible.”
  • From Nick Sinai’s keynote: API’s for government data, and a new government-wide API directory, make it possible for “Entrepreneurs and business owners [to use] data to solve problems that government can’t efficiently solve by itself.” Some examples: Opower, iTriage, the Climate Corporation, BillGuard, Zillow, Stormpulse. Nick Sinai from the post-keynote Q&A: “If I look out five to ten years, I think we’ll not only see new businesses being created, we’ll see whole new industries being created.”
  • Darrell Issa on government’s role in Open Data: It should operate like “Toyota rather than Rolls Royce,” delivering data efficiently for the needs of government and the public.
  • Eric Cantor: “Transparency means to me accountability – it’s more eyeballs on what the government does, and that’s a goodl thing.” Congressional leadership plans to introduce the DATA Act again after it’s been scored by the Congressional Budget Office.
  • Great examples of the private sector using government data from London’s Open Data Institute and from Luther Lowe, Director of Public Policy for Yelp, which now uses restaurant  inspection data in reviews in some cities. His view (and many others’): Government provides data, private companies present it in compelling ways. “We shouldn’t expect government to build beautiful interfaces – but if we don’t do it, we’re dead.”
  • Lots of discussion on an emerging topic: Treating regulations and legislation themselves as Open Data, making them machine-readable so that compliance can almost be automated. In Hudson Hollister’s words, “Lines of code will replace layers of lawyers.” Great idea – watch for more on this to come.
  • All agree we need better data standards, which will be part of the reintroduced DATA Act. Analogy from Linda Powell of Treasury’s Office of Financial Research: Before the Civil War, railroads were using about twenty different gauges. A train that ran on one couldn’t run on the other. (Today, we’d call this a lack of interoperability.) After the war, standardization made a national railroad network possible.

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