Monday, June 25, 2012

Opening 990 Data

Carl Malamud, who would win an "open data genius award" from me*, is proposing to move the boulders that stand in the way of open, machine readable, free access 990 data. Check out the proposal to the Knight News Challenge (category "data"). Look at the price tag - $600K - amazing to think what could be done for such little money.

This is a big deal. There is an important infrastructure that has been built up around 990 data (Guidestar and several of their partner platforms - Great Nonprofits, GiveWell, etc) That infrastructure is important. So is the infrastructure built around foundation grants data (Foundation Center). These organizations are critical  - opening the data once is great, but maintaining and keeping these data open and clean and accessible over time is what will make them a real resource for change.

Malamud has a track record in opening data and then changing the ways systems work around them. He's responsible for getting the SEC to provide corporate filings in this way. Long story short - way back in the early 1990s government wouldn't do it, Malamud opened the data, gave it back to the government, and said now you keep it going. New firms, new website accessibility, new products have been built from the data to keep them useful. This is the "edge" of change that opening the 990 data will bring us to - public data made available in a free and useful form incites existing firms to adapt and provide higher value services on top of those data. New enterprises, products, apps, licensing partners also emerge.

Opening up 990 data is not an end goal, it is a beginning. It is a beginning that will make possible much of what I call data philanthropy and many of the ideas listed here. It will require adaptation and innovation by existing data purveyors and open up opportunities for new ones. It will change the way long term data access and data sets are maintained (but it doesn't remove the need for those activities).

Check out the proposal. Think about what you could do differently if these data were readily available, mixable, portable, presentable. And let Malamud, the Knight Foundation and me know what you think might happen. Whether or not the proposal to the News Challenge is successful this is something we should make happen.

On a related note - here's a very cool new website of mapping data possibilities that Micah Sifry found and shared on Twitter this morning - Harvard's WorldMap Collection.

Now - imagine the future with data on nonprofits ready to be displayed graphically using these free mapping tools. OK, never mind, imagine that as the present. Because that's where we're about to be.

*Listen to this great webinar from Tim O'Reilly about Malamud and Government 2.0.


Alfred Gracombe said...

This would be an amazing (and very welcome) development for the sector. From the perspective of grantmakers, having grantee 990 data at the ready to mash up with data from their grants management platforms would be very powerful, for questions around compliance and much more. Not to mention the ability for grantmaking organizations to see funding and financial data from their peers. What's not clear from the proposal is if Schedule B data, the list of contributors, or in the case of foundations, the grantees, will be included in this data. That would be incredibly powerful but unlikely given the lack of consistency in format of how this data is reported. But at a minimum, having the financial data, in an open, computable format, is of tremendous value to the sector and application developers serving the sector such as ourselves.

Jana Byington-Smith, CFRE said...

Alfred's comment about Section B reminds me of issues of standardization. I don't know if the 990 data is the first line for me, a nonprofit staff member. Frankly, the home-grown and commercial product micro-giving data and expense tracking data is the compost-laden source of data I'd like to play in. I'd like to see $600,000 go to Bill Levis (Mr. 990) at the Urban Institute to continue the work he's doing with AFP, helping CRM software companies come together, for the first time, to standardize the values of giving fields so the sector (and independent sub-sectors) can build measures for sector-wide improvement. 990 is what nonprofits tell the government. CRM data is the data nonprofits actually use.
Some history on Bill:
Some info on the Fundraising Effectiveness Project:

Anonymous said... (SGO) has been working on a similar project for a couple of years. Here’s a link to the SGO proposal to the News Challenge: