USASpending.gov updated, functionality drastically diminished say businesses

Businesses reliant on the financial transparency tool call it a step back for open government
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In the early hours of March 31, the Treasury Department pushed out an update to USASpending.gov, one of the federal government's premier open data platforms, but instead of ushering in improvements or new capabilities, changes to the massive database tool stripped the site of some critical functionality.

The website, which is managed by Treasury's Bureau of Fiscal Service, provides checkbook-level data on how money is spent at each agency and department. It has long been touted as a cornerstone of the White House's Open Government and Accountable Government [.pdf] initiatives.

Among the changes made to the site is a significantly reduced "advanced search" capability that no longer allows for search by the most basic categorization schema used to organize government spending data.

Fiscal assistant secretary David Lebryk issued a clarifying statement April 1 regarding the changes. In the blog post he wrote that Treasury regards the "refresh" of the website as an implementation of usability improvements.

According to Lebryk, those improvements include navigation updates for quicker access to information; a limitation on "government terminology and jargon" for easier understanding for the public; an interactive map that presents some geospecific data; more succinct agency and state summary pages for financial data; a connection to sub-award data; and simpler searches with "user-friendly titles for data elements."

However, USASpending.gov users can no longer search by the Product and Service Code [.pdf], which indicates a product purchased by the government – such as PSC number 5305 for "screws" – or search by the North American Industry Classification System code, which classifies types of contractors – such as NAICS number 541511 for "Custom Computer Programming Services."

Only top level PSC search and top level NAICS search (a code's first two digits) is enabled with the updated version of the site. Search by indefinite delivery vehicles and procurement instrument identifier, or IDV PIID, is also unavailable with the USASpending.gov update. Search by IDV PIID allowed users to research contract ceilings, period of performance dates and task orders for specific contracting vehicles.

The update also:

  • Eliminated search by parent company – only subsidiaries are now enabled;
  • removed keyword search capabilities;
  • eliminated date range filtering; and
  • limited data exports from advanced search from more than 200 fields to only 12 fields.

The "data download" page on USASpending.gov now has fewer advanced search options, and historical data on inactive transactions once available through "archive" and "delta" files are no longer available on the site.

USASpending.gov's archived data is immensely valuable to anyone doing historic, longitudinal research.

An Obama administration official speaking on background said many of the changes, such as those to PSC and NAICS search functionality provide more user friendly search for the general public. He added that the IDV PIID field is mapped to the "award ID" field on the new site.

The official said the "parent DUNS" search, which allowed for parent company search was also eliminated in order to reduce complexity for the general public.

Further, the official added that additional improvements to enable greater textual searching of data are being considered in response to user feedback.

Data archives are available through the download center, the official stated, but Treasury appears to be working to add delta file functionality to the new platform.

"We are concerned because our business model is based on the long history of open government data fueling innovations in a variety of industries. Making open data less accessible is a step back for transparency in government, and disrupts the potential for continued progress," said Nate Nash, chief executive at GovTribe, a federal contracting market intelligence company.

Another executive, whose market intelligence business relies on USASpending.gov data, also said the changes to the site Tuesday immediately impacted his business. And while his service offering is part of the growing open-data economy that relies so heavily on government transparency, it will likely affect the entire government contracting community.

"I guarantee a month from now when businesses are doing strategic planning and trying to figure out who got the award and who the incumbent is on a contract and what happened to that data, they're going to be pissed just like we are," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

He added that there was no notice or public consultation from the Fiscal Service that the update was coming.

In addition to the businesses that rely on federal spending data, researchers, transparency groups and the general public use the platform regularly.

"The apathy or the lack of recognition that this information is being used and is important when something like this happens is an affront to all of us who are out there advocating for open, transparent policy from our government with the data that we paid for," said the executive speaking on background.

"This is data that you own and I own that they're just selectively choosing to dial it down."

Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, said USASpending.gov is the only comprehensive source of federal spending data on grants and contracts. 

"Our Coalition members rely heavily on bulk downloads from USASpending.gov to deliver transparency to the public and useful intelligence to business," said Hollister. 

"For now, we're working with Treasury to make sure the bulk download capabilities aren't affected by upgrades to the site's user interface. For the future, we hope Treasury and the White House will keep bulk download users in mind as the site expands to include all spending, not just grants and contracts."

It's unclear whether the updates to the site are related to DATA Act implementation. President Obama signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act into law May 9. The law requires agencies to regularly post spending data in a standardized format onto USASpending.gov. 

The Treasury secretary and the director of the Office of Management and Budget are tasked with choosing the standards, which have to include "widely accepted" common data elements.

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