GovLab Blog Open Data

#OpenData Victory: Court Orders IRS to Make Public Machine Readable 990 Non-Profit Tax Return Data

publicresourceThe Federal District Court for the Northern District of California ruled this week that the IRS must turn over the original, machine-readable versions of nine tax returns filed with the IRS to Plaintiff (Disclosure: I filed affidavits in the case on behalf of PublicResource and its demand to make these returns available).
By law, non-profit tax returns are required to be made public. However, despite the fact that a large percentage of these returns are filed in a digital, machine-readable electronic format (MeF), the IRS makes it a practice to print out the returns and scan them back in so that the resulting file is an image file. Dr. Daniel Goroff and I describe this process (and the asserted rationale for it) in detail in the report “Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data” we produced on opening up 990 tax returns for the Aspen Institute Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation in 2013.
But releasing 990 data in machine readable format is a national priority. A comprehensive source of high-quality data on nonprofits, structured to allow comparisons and analyses across different organizations in the sector, would greatly enhance and accelerate research about the sector and make it possible to:

  1. Do more extensive, in-depth empirical research on the sector as a whole, including sector-wide issues such as the impact of the economic downturn on nonprofits, the geographic distribution of nonprofit services, and the efficiency of the nonprofit sector in delivering services;
  2. Combine the 990 data with other datasets, such as those on government spending, to better understand the relationship between public and private dollars in providing social services;
  3. Query the data to address issues relating to specific nonprofits, such as gaining greater insight into 501(c)(4) organizations that engage in lobbying or finding trends and outliers in executive compensation;
  4. Recognize fraud early, anticipate abuses, and target enforcement more efficiently and effectively; and
  5. Enable more people and organizations to analyze, visualize, and mash up the data, creating a large public community that is interested in the nonprofit sector and can collaborate to find ways to improve it.

With the IRS now ordered to put the processes in place to release these electronically-filed returns electronically, the hope is that the marginal cost for releasing all electronically filed returns (even if some of the returns are still filled out by hand and filed on paper) will have dropped to close to zero. Opening up these returns for analysis is the best way for us to gain insight into the all-important philanthropic sector.
Further Reading:
Court Orders IRS to Release Computer-Readable Charity Tax Forms by Suzanne Perry (Jan 29, 2015)
John Oliver: Last Week Tonight (A great example of what you can do with open 990 tax data) (Sep 21, 2014)
IRS Won’t Fix Database of Nonprofits So It Goes Dark by Cory Doctorow (June 16, 2014)
IRS Turn Over a New Leaf: Open Up Data by Beth Simone Noveck with Stefaan Verhulst (May 23, 2013)
Liberating 990 Data by Beth Simone Noveck (Feb 4, 2013)
Charity Tax Data Are Too Valuable Not to Have in Digital Form by Cinthia Schuman Ottinger (March 10, 2013)
Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data by Beth Simone Noveck and Daniel Goroff (Jan 2013)

GovLab Blog GovLab Digest

Governing through Prizes and Challenges

As governments and other institutions increasingly come to recognize Joy’s Law – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” – many efforts to solve big problems are being posed to the public rather than being exclusively addressed within institutional borders. Two of the central techniques for shifting the locus of innovation from within institutions to the general public are:

  • Prize-Induced Contests – using monetary rewards to incentivize individuals and other entities to develop solutions to public problems; and
  • Grand Challenges – posing large, audacious goals to the public to spur collaborative, non-governmental efforts to solve them.

The GovLab’s Chief of Research Stefaan Verhulst and Associate Director of Research Andrew Young shared their observations on  what is known regarding these two innovative techniques on Medium, with an eye toward operationalizing a research agenda to determine their effectiveness and creating the environment needed for governmental and other institutional decision-makers to act on the innovation opportunity they present.
Click here to read “Governing through Prizes and Challenges” and share your thoughts.

GovLab Blog GovLab Index

The GovLab Index on Internet Governance — Access (Infrastructure)

Please find below the latest installment of the GovLab Index on Internet Governance, inspired by the Harper’s Index. “Internet Governance — Access (Infrastructure)” is part of a series of Indexes that focus on the five main areas within Internet Governance: access, content, code, trust, and trade. This edition focuses on infrastructural aspects of Internet access and connectivity. Previous installments in the series include Access (Net Neutrality), Code, Content, Trade, and Trust. Please share any additional statistics and research findings with us by emailing shruti at
Internet Access

Broadband in the United States

  • National average speed for Internet connections in the US: 31.85 Mbps
  • Most common household connection type in the United States in 2013: cable modem (42.8%)
    • Percentage of households with DSL connections: 21.2%
    • Households that reported using only a dial-up connection: 1%
  • Percentage of Americans who lack access to 25Mbps/3Mbps: 17% or 55 million
    • How many rural Americans lack access to 25Mbps/3Mbps: 53% or 22 million
    • How many urban Americans lack access to 25Mbps/3Mbps: 8%
  • Amount the broadband gap closed in 2014: 3%
  • Broadband as currently defined by the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC): 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up
  • Definition of broadband being proposed by Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC, in January 2015: 25 Mbps down,  3 Mbps up

Fiber Optics


GovLab Blog Internet Governance

Survey Results: How do Internet users currently search for information on Internet Governance?

Over the last few months we have sought to understand, through one-on-one user interviews and an on-line survey, how individuals search for and find information related to Internet governance issues. The insights gained through these efforts are meant to support the design of a NETmundial Solutions Map prototype.
We shared our findings from the interviews earlier here. In addition, we conducted an extensive analysis of existing Internet governance mapping efforts, and the results are posted here.  Our recent survey, aimed at capturing a broader set of needs and points of views, ran for two months until the end of 2014. Please find the results below:
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As the pie-chart below indicates, we received responses from a diverse set of stakeholders, reflecting the diversity of the Internet governance ecosystem. Given that the survey was located on the NETmundial initiative’s website, we can assume that the respondents are already familiar with Internet governance.
Participants gave a wide range of responses when asked why they were searching for information on Internet governance. Their feedback ranged from academic research, to business concerns, to understanding the impact of global Internet governance on the design of domestic policies. And some users responded that they were simply searching out of curiosity. This reflects a plethora of possible use cases for Internet Governance Maps.
Survey respondents also indicated that they were looking for a range of particular kinds of information. These included (in alphabetical order) :

  • Activities and events
  • Actors
  • Fora and processes
  • Historical context
  • Laws & Initiatives
  • Position Papers
  • Research Publications
  • Transcript
  • Webcasts

Similarly, survey respondents use a diversity of methods in searching for information on Internet governance issues. For the most part, respondents engage in a multi-step process, starting with search engines like Google and moving onto links from recommended blogs, articles, and resources. Some indicated that they reached out to experts, peers and trusted individuals within their network when they needed help in their information seeking process. We learned that peers and thought leaders are considered a valuable resource, particularly when trying to get the most up to date information. None of the respondents identified a single trusted source for all of their Internet governance information needs.
Those who indicated that they had negative experiences with finding information about  Internet governance provided the following reasons:

  • It is difficult to determine whether a source is credible.
  • It is difficult to find up-to-date information.
  • There is a lack of contextually relevant information.
  • It is not clear how things work, and where Internet policy is taking place.

We welcome your involvement in the next phase of development of the NETmundial Solutions Map. In February 2015, we will conduct consultations and invite further comments on the prototype currently in development.

GovLab Blog ResearchRepo

New GovLab Resource: R-Search – Rapid Re-Search Enabling the Design of Agile and Creative Responses to Problems

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 1.37.24 PM
How to quickly, yet systematically, become smart about a topic when seeking solutions to public problems? What questions to answer that can help assess the problem and solutions space better? How to identify rapidly the stakeholders that matter? Today, the GovLab released a new resource seeking to enable problem-solvers to design agile and creative responses to public challenges based upon research and due diligence.
The “R-Search” rapid research methodology encompasses two central components that, when leveraged, can enable researchers to develop, iterate and implement evidence-based solutions to public problems:

  •   Getting smart quickly on a topic by:
    • developing a clear and detailed understanding of the problem and solution area;
    • identifying actors at play in the problem and solution space; and
    • understanding the larger context in which the problem and potential solutions exist.
  • Staying in the know regarding new developments in the problem and solution space.

R-Search, consistent with the GovLab’s action research approach, is not premised on the belief that static, in-the-lab research should get in the way of real-world problem-solving. Rather, the R-Search approach is built around the notion that:

  • Seemingly intractable problems require agile and creative responses; and
  • Meaningful and agile creativity can only arise when there is a rapid understanding of the topic at hand.

R-Search, therefore, seeks to:

  • enable the development of a MAP (a topic’s Milieu, relevant Actors and existing Problem space) of issues, scholarship, actions and opinions surrounding a topic to allow for the design of responses that are more informed and targeted;
  • allow for the development of a baseline against which progress can be measured;
  • enable the completion of a project canvas to guide development, implementation and assessment; and
  • provide for knowledge-building to inform rapid prototyping.

View the full resource here.

GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Jean-Claude Burgelman: How to Support a New Era of Scientific Research

At the latest installment the Ideas Lunch series, the GovLab hosted Dr. Jean-Claude Burgelman, the Head of Unit C2, DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission. The talk centered on the changing academic and scientific research market, in the Web 2.0 era. He also provided some of his thoughts on his most recent project within the European Commission, a public consultation initiative, “Science 2.0: Science in Transition.”

Burgelman’s talk built oScreen Shot 2015-01-07 at 11.01.59 AMff of past work he has done mapping the emergence of a Science 2.0, and the role that Web 2.0 technologies are playing in the development of science. New tools and technologies, like open source, open access journals, and blogs, are changing the model of scientific every stage – in data gathering, publication, review, and conceptualization.

In his own work, Burgelman makes the point that science is becoming more open and collaborative, as well as more data intensive. These trends are beginning to impact existing academic and scientific institutions, such as their funding structures, hiring processes, and even through the type of education being sought out by students.

Rather than see these changes as threatening, Burgelman urges policymakers and academics to acknowledge that a more open science has the potential to foster more accountability, and more reproducibility.

Burgelman does warn readers in his paper published on the open access journal First Monday, there are potential negative outcomes of this increased openness. A new reliance on online tools, such as, Mendeley, or ResearchGate, blog views, and social media mean a different set of metrics has the potential to determine the success and potential impact of scientific research. And members of the public and members of the scientific community, have different criteria for what constitutes “good” science. How institutions will respond to this new trend will become pivotal in resolving this debate in the future.
Burgelman’s talk resonated with many of the policymakers and academics in attendance that were keen to understand how government bodies, such as the European Commission, are responding to changes in this field. Discussions centered on how Science 2.0 would be governed, the relationship between public and private enterprises in funding research projects, and the development of new metrics to assess the quality of scientific research.
Some key takeaways from Burgelman’s discussion:

  • Social, political and technological changes are leading to a science and research paradigm that is more ‘open.’
  • Science will continue to be more open, through the increased popularity and influence of open access journals, and other ways of evaluating research through software like ResearchGate, Mendeley and others.
  • Opening science creates a scientific paradigm that has the potential to be more productive, reliable and reproducible.
  • We need new metrics to evaluate scientific impact, which will become important in the evaluation of science and in funding decisions.

The targeted public consultation period of the project closed on September 30, 2014. The draft policy brief led by Dr. Jean-Claude Burgelman’s team is still open for comments.
Further Reading:

GovLab Blog

NEW paper: Innovations in Global Governance: Towards a Distributed Internet Governance Ecosystem

The CenScreen Shot 2015-01-05 at 12.19.17 PMtre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) just released our paper on “Innovations in Global Governance: Towards a Distributed Internet Governance Ecosystem.” It is part of a series of research papers supporting the Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG). The GCIG was established in January 2014 “to articulate and advance a strategic vision for the future of Internet governance”. (The GovLab Director Beth Noveck is a commissioner on the GCIG).
Our paper starts from the observation that…

“developments in how the Internet is governed have not kept pace with this rapid technological innovation. Figuring out how to evolve the Internet’s governance in ways that are effective and legitimate is essential to ensure its continued potential. Flexible and innovative decision-making mechanisms are needed in order to enable disparate governance actors to address and respond effectively as changes in the network occur”

We subsequently outline a path toward a distributed yet coordinated framework to accommodate a variety of existing and emerging decision-making approaches. The paper draws on the lessons learned of open governance practices and suggest ways to apply them to Internet Governance, and its various settings and stages of decision making.
In particular, the key features of the emerging Distributed Internet Governance Ecosystem, which we detail in the paper, include:

  • Enhanced coordination and cooperation across institutions and actors using innovative collaboration methods, including crowdsourcing;
  • Increased interoperability (e.g., through the creation of a common Internet governance ecology) with regard to identifying and describing issues and approaches;
  • Open information-sharing and evidence-based decision-making; and
  • An emphasis on expertise- or issue-based organizations that allow for both localization and scale in problem-solving.

We encourage discussion and additional insights on the paper from interested readers. Please do share your comments and suggestions in the forum below. We look forward to incorporating them into a subsequent version of the paper.
Above all we call upon public leaders to develop diverse governance experiments in how we maximize the potential of the Internet for all.
See also: The Quest for a 21st Century ICANN: A Blueprint. ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation & The GovLab. May, 2014.