Hudson Hollister is a pioneer and hero of the government open data movement. As he steps down from his role as executive director of the Data Coalition, Hudson reflects on the organization he founded and shares his insights, appreciation and advice to the open data community at large.
How has the open data landscape changed since you first started the Data Coalition?
First, open data is part of the regular business of the federal government now, in a way that wasn’t true in 2012.
We see this change in the increasing visibility of chief data officers like Mona Siddiqui at U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Kris Rowley at General Services Administration, and Dan Morgan at the Department of Transportation. Five years ago, CDOs, if appointed at all, were in charge of designing application programming interfaces for external stakeholders. Today, CDOs are part of the management team, and their work is more about organizing data for internal use.
Second, federal agencies better understand the need, now, to transform their documents into standardized data to reduce the costs of reporting and analytics. We are seeing bigger, more ambitious data standardization projects at the White House, in grant reporting, and in financial regulation.
Third, the phrase “open data” is not at all trendy any more! All these new roles and projects aren’t always tagged with that phrase. Which is fine by me–it is much better for our government and our society if open data management is just management, period.
What have been the highlights and major accomplishments of your time at the Data Coalition?
I am so proud of passing the DATA Act of 2014, the nation’s first open data law, directing the entire federal executive branch to begin reporting spending information as a single, unified, and public data set. When I started the Coalition in 2012, there was strong support for the DATA Act in Congress, but subtle opposition in the White House. If our Data Coalition members hadn’t supported such a vigorous campaign, the law would never have been enacted in the strong form it was. And I’m proud of the Data Coalition’s work to continue to support the transformation of spending information–which is by no means complete.
The DATA Act was our first beachhead. We have made good progress since then with the Financial Transparency Act (open data for all federal financial regulatory reporting), the OPEN Government Data Act (default policy in favor of open licenses and open formats for all government information), and the GREAT Act (open data for all federal grant reporting), all three of which have moved forward in this current Congress. And we have made progress in the agencies too. Just last week the Securities and Exchange Commission finally adopted the Inline XBRL format for corporate financial statements–which means a single, human- and machine-readable filing, a huge step forward for investors and markets. We pushed for Inline XBRL for over five years.
In 2016, we spun off the Data Foundation as a separate think tank. That is important to the Coalition’s campaign, too, because the Foundation provides in-depth research on the need for governments to standardize, share, and use their data. Research supports reform.
Finally, I’m proud of the Data Coalition as a trade association. We have more members now–nearly fifty–than at any other time. Trade associations must do three things for their members: help them grow their businesses, provide a seat at the policy table, and set a vision of change that is philosophically appealing, good for the world. Our growth shows that the Data Coalition is doing this for data companies.
What’s your advice to the next Data Coalition executive director?
I hope earnestly that the Coalition will continue to empower data companies to make our government more and more efficient and transparent. The next executive director will have a chance to find new ways to do that.
Last week, feeling nostalgic, I looked at the first slide deck that I used to try to convince IBM to join the Coalition, in February 2012, right after I had resigned from my Congressional staff job to start this thing. I hadn’t opened the file in over six years. I was shocked to see that the slide deck contained almost all of the policy ideas that we are still working on–open data for spending, open data for grant reporting, open data for regulatory reporting. Those projects are not done, and the Data Coalition will need to keep pushing them, but a fresh leader can certainly find new battles to improve government, beyond my old ones.
Who are your open data heroes?
There are so many public servants inside and outside government who are trying to make it easier to standardize, share, and use data. Almost always they could earn more notoriety or more money working on some other issue, or some other job. Data standards can be a boring, dry, thankless topic. (The applications that arise after standardization are thrilling, but only after years of spadework.)
Some of these public servants are well-known for other reasons, like my former boss, Congressman Darrell Issa; Senators Mark Warner, Ben Sasse, and Brian Schatz; and Reps. Derek Kilmer, Carolyn Maloney, and Randy Hultgren. But their open data work gets lost amidst other battles.
Others are very quietly changing the world: Katy Rother at the House Oversight Committee; Seamus Kraft at Article One; Kristen Gullickson at the House clerk’s office; Rebecca Williams at the White House office of the CIO; and the DATA Act team at the Treasury Department, led first by Christina Ho and now by Amy Edwards.
Aside from joining the Data Coalition, what is your open data call to action to others?
It has been the same since I first joined the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a decade ago this month: standardize data first. All of the flashy stuff will be much easier after that. Hashtag blockchain.
Any perspectives or advice to others on the general government and civic tech landscape you’d like to share?
Don’t let political battles, even the really important ones, ruin the opportunity to build our democracy with civic tech! Every opportunity to get a reliable government data set standardized, published, and then protected by vigorous, frequent use is a win.