Rosetta Stone for corporate IDs would simplify accountability

ORGPedia aims to ease the exchange of data between existing systems used to track political contributions

Which company’s executives give more money to federal election campaigns: Coke or Pepsi? It might seem like a simple question, but researchers soon find it is anything but.

Searching the Federal Election Commission’s database for contributors who list Coke or Pepsi as their employer just scratches the surface. What about Coca-Cola or Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Pepsico or Pepsi Bottling Co.?

Many experts have concluded that for greater public accountability of federal spending and regulation, having unique numeric identifiers for businesses and organizations is vastly preferable to ad hoc naming. The ideal system would link parent companies and subsidiaries.

Federal agencies have multiple systems for assigning numeric identifiers, such as Employer Identification Numbers and the proprietary Data Universal Numbering System supplied by Dun and Bradstreet.

The Labor Department recently published several of its enforcement databases online, and each had a different numbering scheme. “We realized there was no consistency even within just the Labor Department,” said David Roberts, the agency’s director of new media. “We tried to tie the databases together, but we did not have a solid way to do it.”

It is even more difficult to compare Labor’s data with that of other agencies for the same workplaces, Roberts added.

Accountability groups have been calling attention to the lack of readily available and consistent numeric identifiers as an Achilles’ heel of open government for years. Another group, iSolon.org, has suggested that public leaders receive unique identifiers to better track their official actions.

Beth Noveck, former deputy chief technology officer for open government at the White House, is spearheading a new project that seeks to address that problem, among others. Under the ORGPedia project, several technologists, federal officials, and representatives of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, OMB Watch and New York Law School have been meeting to discuss possibilities for open systems for identifying, numbering and comparing business entities, including creating technologies to translate information between existing systems.

As a result, “we could get better insight into spending on contracts and political contributions,” said Noveck, who returned to New York Law School as a professor in January. “Right now, we do not have the full picture.”

Another goal is to reduce the government’s costs, which currently run about $53 million a year for proprietary identification systems, she said. “The idea is to have an open alternative that does not require spending taxpayer dollars on a proprietary system,” Noveck added.

She emphasized that the goal is not to build a big new platform but rather to create an open exchange and display of data. “The question is how we can make sure we are talking across all the silos to get insight across domains,” Noveck said.

The project has personal meaning, too. “I was keen to continue to work in this space,” she said. “It is an exciting thing to be useful to bring voices to the table — for the technology, law and policy.”

Connecting the dots

The movement is picking up momentum from the general push for open government and accountability. “Beth Noveck is a high-level person, and this is a major effort,” said J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org. “I expect it will take off.”

Even so, there is no consensus yet on a solution or even on how to define all the parameters. “One of the questions is, what level of granularity do we want?” said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs.

“I have had multiple discussions on the ins and outs of this,” said Craig Jennings, director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch. “To say the least, it is fraught.”

But at least the ball has started rolling. And other efforts to improve cross-domain data — for example, for terrorism intelligence — have paid off.

“If the government can connect the dots for government users of national security data, why not for citizens and journalists seeking democratic accountability data?” Snider asked.

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Reader comments

Fri, May 6, 2011 J.H. Snider

For the record, my focus over the last few years has been on the need to prioritize governmentwide organizational identifiers over governmentwide personal identifiers. The reason for this focus has been political: there tend to be fewer political objections to the former than the latter. It's only been in the last few months, after the open government community coalesced around the organizational identifier agenda, that I've felt it important to remind folks not to completely ignore personal identifiers, which do have some politically feasible applications if carefully and narrowly targeted. Thanks for coverage of this important topic. --J.H. Snider iSolon.org

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