Treasury Builds Data Lab To Inspire ‘Better Data, Better Decisions, Better Government’

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The Data Transparency Office went beyond the DATA Act mandate to build visualizations showing where agencies’ $500 billion in contract spending goes each year.

The Bureau of the Fiscal Service on Thursday unveiled the new Data Lab, part of the relaunch of USAspending.gov, a key part of the government’s congressionally mandated transparency efforts.

It can be hard to wrap your head around $500 billion in contract spending across 2,000 accounts, but that was the charge given to the bureau: find a way to make the U.S. government’s spending data accessible and understandable. The new site launches with six interactive data visualizations that break down the government’s annual spending by agency, office, contractor and more.

“We enable users to quickly consume the data for decision making and ultimately to help promote a better government,” Renata Maziarz, director for data transparency and product owner on the Data Lab, told Nextgov ahead of the launch.

While the DATA Act—legislation passed in 2014 requiring the federal government to be more transparent about spending—does not require the Fiscal Service to create visualization tools, the project fits perfectly with the motto of the bureau’s Data Transparency Office: better data, better decisions, better government.

“It’s been a lot of time and investment” building USASpending and bringing all that data together in one place, said Justin Marsico, senior policy analyst for the Fiscal Service. “We wanted to make sure that now that the data exists—now that there is one standard, uniform dataset that represents government spending—that people can use it and that it’s understandable to people and can be used to solve problems.”

While much of the transparency work being done by the Fiscal Service and the Transparency Office are citizen-focused, there is value for agencies, as well.

“Federal agencies are the data providers,” Maziarz noted, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use the tools, as well. “Many federal agencies are siloed. So, you may not know what the budget office is doing if you’re a procurement person. What the USASpending website does is enable federal agencies to view their agency’s spending in a cohesive manner.”

Marsico said the goal is to inspire people to take action and, ultimately, promote better decision making from the voting booth to the halls of Congress to the White House and federal agencies.

As of the initial launch, the Data Lab has six visualization tools but not much in the way of interactivity with the base data. Marsico said that could change in the future, as the Transparency Office plans to do regular, iterative updates to the site. But there are also opportunities now, as all of the code used to make the site and visualizations is open source and available to the public, as is the data.

“The purpose of the Data Lab is to provide value to the citizens,” he said. “But it’s also to inspire people to come up with new ideas for how to use the data. As we say around here: data plus use equals value.”

Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Coalition and an early and ardent advocate for the DATA Act, applauded the move but noted the work is not finished.

“The revamped site and Data Lab provide greater insights, accountability and oversight into $3.98 trillion of government spending last year alone,” he said in a statement to Nextgov. “We are encouraged by the progress and recognize that agencies must continue to improve the quality of their data submissions in accordance with the law’s requirements.”