Making the Case for Spending Data

Imagine the possibilities of unleashing detailed data about federal government expenditures across the United States:

  • Enabling a laundry business owner in San Diego, CA to successfully research and bid on a large, stable contract with the military as she seeks to expand her business
  • Empowering a research and evaluation firm in Durham, NC to compete for a Department of Education grant to determine the efficacy of a federally-funded STEM education program
  • Educating a Seattle city councilmember about the procurement timeline for the expansion of the local VA hospital

Soon, needs and desires like these will be more easily and quickly fulfilled.

In May 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury will relaunch, the federal government’s spending transparency website. It will offer the public a user-friendly financial transparency tool with new capabilities and more extensive data, giving access to timely and accurate information.

The public will soon be able to access a dataset that reveals how the $3.8 trillion federal budget is spent annually across 100+ governmental agencies.

Meet the Team

Where do we, a cross-disciplinary team of Harvard students, come in? Here’s a high-level view of the team members:

  • Anna Ponting brings the perspective of a policy-maker and digital government implementer. She has worked for the City of New York City and consulted for mayor’s offices around the world on digital transparency projects, which will help the team understand the challenges of launching tech projects in government.
  • Cindy Yang has a background in both start-ups and finance, having worked on launching a new vertical at a fintech startup in San Francisco after helping it scale from 30 employees to over 400. Her experience in user research, business development and ability to work alongside regulators will help us engage with potential users and assess demand for financial data.
  • Maya Perl brings expertise in strategy, operations and project management as a former management consultant for organizations ranging from large corporations to community-based non-profits. Her experience driving analytical initiatives will help the team think about the data and metrics needed to make Treasury’s products impactful to users.
  • Ni Xu comes to the project with a background in software engineering and entrepreneurship. He is a former engineer from Apple now on his way to an MBA, and will help us recommend useful tools for developers that leverage’s new capabilities.
  • Will Long brings experience leading technical teams in projects for startups, international development NGOs, and think-tanks. A Joint Concentration in Computer Science and Government, his expertise will enable the team to analyze and build out use cases with Treasury’s data.

Our mandate

The Treasury Department has spent a lot of time painstakingly preparing this data for public consumption. Now, they want input on how users might best use the data, build on it, and create value.

We’ll take our cumulative skills in market research, data analysis, product management, and software engineering to build out these use cases and help Treasury uncover demand for the spending data. For starters, we’re building hypotheses on various use cases—who could best utilize this data set, what format do they need to digest it in and how could Treasury promote the creation of economic value from this use? Our earliest thoughts center around vendors—unveiling new opportunities for America’s 28 million small business owners who otherwise might have confronted barriers in the government procurement process. That said, we’re still early in our user discovery and research—stay tuned!

An Unprecedented Case of Transparency

Why make spending data transparent? The impetus for the expansion of was the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, also known as the DATA Act, signed by President Obama in 2014. The legislation mandated the creation of government-wide reporting and data standards across all types of spending and agencies in an unprecedented granular and standardized level.

The Treasury team, however, is going far beyond data disclosure. Our project leads at Treasury, Christina Ho and Amy Edwards, are so committed to usability that they want to proactively uncover new use cases across a variety of stakeholders. Over the next 12 weeks, we’ll explore this landscape.

Treasury’s Work to-Date

For our project, we’ll be building off of Treasury’s momentum. They’ve already done extensive work by establishing the data standard, incorporating user feedback and setting out initial user research.

The relaunch happening in May will include 400 data elements for every contract, grant, loan, or other governmental financial disbursement, making expenditures comparable and standardized. Since ~75% of federal spending is transferred to state or local governments, users will be able to track the expenditure down to specific projects..

Incorporating public feedback has been a priority to Treasury since the project’s inception, which they’ve achieved through their GitHub site. GitHub acts as a collaboration space for Treasury’s developers to interact with interested members of the public. It’s available to everyone to comment on code, proposed functionality, the data model, or participate in user testing.

Beyond the technical achievements behind, the Treasury has vigorously adopted user-centered design into their work. They’ve developed four personas, or user types, likely to use this data: taxpayers, recipients of a contract or grant, journalists, and technical users seeking to repurpose the data (see graphic, below). These personas informed the design of the new website roll-out. Our team will build on this work as we consider the tool’s potential users and their needs.

Our next step is to evaluate a breadth of potential users to understand their pain points, desires, and goals when using government spending data. Treasury is especially interested in identifying business use cases and measuring economic impact to demonstrate the value of their effort and promote it as a model to other parts of local, state, and federal government.

Together with the Treasury, we’re flipping the “build it and they will come” approach on its head. In a few months’ time, we hope to leave Treasury with a strategy to go directly to users and help them discover the potential behind the data.

Will Long, Maya Perl, Anna Ponting, Cindy Yang, Ni Xu