Transparency and accountability are key components of smart incentive use, but both pose huge challenges for the economic development field.  As we work to find solutions to these challenges, here are a few takeaways from my day at Transparency Camp 2014:

Economic development and opengov efforts are still worlds apart.

The participants I heard are still addressing technical challenges in standardizing and sharing basic, well-defined information like voting precincts (Anthea Strong, Google)  and municipal financial data presented in Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) (Marcus Joffe Public Sector Credit Solutions).  The economic development field, by and large, does not have anything nearly so well-defined or standardized, especially across multiple jurisdictions. 

Technology tools are promising, but there first needs to be some taxonomy or standardization to make the information useful for opengov and public interest objectives.

Opengov requires standardized, machine readable data.

This was also one of my main lessons learned from last year’s Transparency Camp. A corollary is that the opengov community is not fond of PDF reports.

Data reported in PDFs can’t easily be aggregated across communities (or agencies) on a single platform to enable comparisons or analyses.  There are tools to enable data to be scraped from PDF documents and compiled in a single platform, but it tends to be labor-intensive and expensive to scale. 

“Transparency activists should pressure governments to provide disclosure in [formats like XBRL]”

XBRL is eXtensible Business Reporting Language. It is a machine-readable way to report financial data, or “a language for the electronic communication of business information.” XBRL is used for financial statement reporting to the SEC and for some state and local public sector financial reporting. You can learn more about how XBRL works here

Others expressed concern that XBRL is too technically difficult or expensive for many government agencies and suggested basic CSV files as the standard instead.  I suspect multiple other options exist as well. 

We need to understand why we are opening government data – and balance the costs of doing so with the benefits.

Participants noted that some data should be “open” because it is simply the right thing to do.  Campaign contributions tend to fall in this category.

Other data should be “open” because it will create more value for the community. Transportation-related data, city property data and program information are examples that tend to fall in that category.

Data can also be used to improve government performance, and this is where it can get tricky. Governments will resist opening data that merely leads to increased external criticism.  Further, some government data is not that exciting.  Mark Headd (Accela) floated the idea that open data may be met with indifference among the public and other stakeholders. If this is the case, why bother?

One reason is that open data can help government itself work better. Melissa Maynard (The Pew Charitable Trusts) pointed out that opening up state data might be as useful to internal government users as it is for external users. Cleaning and formatting data for public consumption makes it more useful for analysis and easier to share across government agencies.

Collecting, sharing and analyzing data within and across government agencies could be extremely valuable to understanding what works, leading to better policy decisions and allocation of resources. This is the driving concept behind the Business Incentives Initiative

Data, analysis, transparency and accountability – four core elements of the Smart Incentives framework and open government.  Look for more on each of these topics in the coming weeks. 


TransparencyCamp “is an ‘unconference’ for opengov, an event where, every year, hundreds of people gather to share their knowledge about how to use new technologies and policies to make our government really work for the people – and to help people work smarter with our government.” TransparencyCamp is organized by the Sunlight Foundation