Improve Governmen⁠t⁠ Da⁠t⁠a To Increase Transparency

By: Adam Millsap / 2019

By Adam A. Millsap and Austin Eovito

It’s widely recognized that government transparency is crucial for limiting corruption and maintaining public trust. Florida’s state and local governments are required to record and publish important financial data and the Florida Sunshine Law guarantees citizen’s have access to these data. Unfortunately, the data are not always easy to use, but a 2018 state law will improve government transparency as long as it can get through the state bureaucracy.

Like many governments across the country, those in Florida typically publish their data in formats that are difficult to analyze with computer software, such as PDFs. One example is comprehensive annual financial reports, or CAFRs. The state and every local government in Florida is required to publish a CAFR every year and they are full of valuable financial information about tax revenue, expenditures, and city assets.

CAFRs are also unwieldy for the average citizen and researcher alike since they are several hundred pages long and published as a PDF. This format, while popular, is not conducive to analysis. A significant amount of time is required to extract data from PDFs and the data extraction process is not always perfect.

For example, copying data by hand to spreadsheets or using specialized software to copy often results in errors. Meanwhile, the data behind images and graphics can’t be extracted without more complex techniques, like optical character recognition (OCR).

To remedy these problems, Florida passed HB 1073 in 2018. One piece of this bill requires starting the process of migrating state and local government data from PDFs and similar formats into a machine-readable format so the data are easier to analyze with statistical and other software.

One possible format is eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), which is already used by over 600 institutions worldwide such as SEC Interactive Data, Spanish Business Register, and the Danish Business Authority. Conversion to a standardized format such as XBRL would benefit government agencies in Florida by making it easier for them to transport, aggregate, and analyze their own data. It would also help external parties by providing better access to financial and other data. Improved access would help researchers and others monitor government and create easy-to-read reports for citizens and the media.

Florida’s legislature allocated $500,000 as part of HB 1073 to begin the process of selecting a company to create the framework necessary for reporting in XBRL or a similar format. However, little progress has been made and it appears several more years of cumbersome PDFs are in Florida’s future.

In today’s world accurate, timely, and accessible government data affect everyone: Data drive decisions about local government programs, infrastructure investments, and state and federal funding. By passing HB 1073, Florida has given itself an opportunity to be a leader when it comes to data transparency and accessibility. Now, we just need our government to follow through.

Adam A. Millsap, PhD, is the assistant director of the L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center at Florida State University. Austin Eovito is data and analytics manager at the DeVoe L. Moore Center and a graduate student in Computational Science at Florida State University.