Industry dealings could be more transparent in open-source tracking system

Feds to benefit from Orgpedia open-source system instead of current proprietary system, Noveck writes

Former White House Deputy CTO Beth Noveck is promoting a public/private program to develop an open-source numbering and unique legal identifier system for the nation’s 18 million businesses and organizations to facilitate cross-cutting research and analysis, Noveck has written.

The federal government spends about $53 million annually on a proprietary system owned by Dun & Bradstreet that assigns and maintains the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) unique identifiers for businesses and other private entities. For example, contractors in the database are labeled with DUNS numbers.

Several economists, technologists and government officials, along with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Sunlight Foundation and New York Law School, are involved in the "Orgpedia" project to develop a taxonomy to identify, number and compare business entities, Noveck wrote in her blog April 3. Noveck left the White House in January to return to being a professor of law at New York Law School.

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Orgpedia's goal is to promote greater accountability and compliance, encourage innovation, and enable research, Noveck wrote.

An open-source system would benefit open government and transparency because it would facilitate comparison and analysis, while reducing costs to the government, she added.

“In order to make the information about how government spends accessible to people, we need to be able to trace this money even when companies change ownership and name,” Noveck wrote. "For example, when Boeing acquires McDonnell Douglas, a search today does not connect these two entities to provide an accurate picture."

“This makes having a unique identifier a priority," she added. "If we had the ability to trace changes such as mergers, we could better understand the connection, if any, between government grants/contracts and campaign contributions; we could spot fraud and remove offending companies from the rolls across agencies.”

An open-source numbering system also would help comparisons between datasets and mashups of different datasets, she added.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 J.H. Snider Washington, DC

I have been working on these issues for a number of years and am pleased that Sunlight, Ms. Noveck, and the Sloan Foundation have recently taken them up. For additional information, see "Connecting for Dots for Democratic Accountability," available at --J.H. Snider, President

Thu, Apr 7, 2011

A perfect open-source numbering system is an ideal goal, and I don't think anyone would dispute that. However, the history around this and like initiatives in government has proven that the Federal government has repeated failed to successfully create or maintain such a program, as several of the comments in the related article linked above accurately point out. There certainly is an opportunity for D&B and the government to modify or expand their relationship to provide broader or deeper access and visibility to the DUNS Numbers on government spend, and the reality is that it would probably have some kind of cost to the government. However to suggest that the government develop a new and organic replacement to an established, and successful program like using the D&B Number seems the acme of absurdity, when this is the same federal government that willingly accpets a price tag of $100 billion each year in loss to fraud, waste and abuse in Medicare/Medicaid because they can't figure out how to ID fraud, and the same federal government that is facing an imminent operating shutdown because they can't finalize budgets? I would suggest that almost anything that government wants to do can be accomplished better, faster and cheaper in the private sector than by internal creation. The article (and by extension Ms. Noveck) offeres no tangible detail on what benefits a "public/private partership" would yield, nor does it in any way address possibilities of modifying the government's current relationship sith D&B to provide some of these aspects of increased visibility. To suggeest that government reinvent this wheel rather than to seek changes to the current process looks less like benevolent altruism and more like a personal agenda by a few, as was mentioned in the comments in the related article. This, and the related article, seem to repeatedly miss the opportunity to write a comprehensive article about exactly what it is that Dun & Bradstreet does provide the government - how it's used or what limitations are placed around that access, and perhaps that might be a good place to start? It would be interesting to hear their view on government's use of the D&B Number, as well as to get their thoughts on it limitations, or how it might be used to solve problems or questions raised by Ms. Noveck.

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