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In 2010, nonprofits in the U.S. numbered 1.5 million, with $1.51 trillion in revenues, and to find particulars or overall trends about this vast and growing sector of the economy, many people use the Form 990. This is the financial and organizational report that every tax-exempt organization submits annually to the Internal Revenue Service.
Yet, like many public documents, the forms are not so easy for researchers, practitioners, and others to access and analyze.
Writing in a recent paper, Beth Noveck, a visiting professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, along with co-author Daniel L. Goroff, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, asked whether government transparency could be enhanced with technology to better support innovation, engagement, and outcomes in the nonprofit sector.
Noveck, who formerly led President Barack Obama’s Open Government Initiative, is immersed in studying the broad, important issue of how governments can better use tech-enabled platforms to engage the citizenry. In her Aspen Institute paper with Goroff, entitled “Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data,” she finds that, like other data collected by the U.S. government, the information in the Form 990s could be far more beneficial “if it were not only ‘public’ but ‘open’ data.” That is: “Available to all, free of charge, in a standard format, published without proprietary conditions, and available online as a bulk download rather than through single-entry lookup.
“Making the 990 data truly open… would not only make it easier to use for the organizations that already process it,” the authors write, “but would also make it useful to researchers, advocates, entrepreneurs, technologists, and nonprofits that do not have the resources to use the data in its current form.”
The move would also encourage greater transparency by nonprofits, spur innovation in the sector, and “above all, help us to understand the potential value of the 990 data,” note the authors.
At present, the IRS creates Form 990 image files and sells DVD compilations to subscribers.
“Just as most people have gotten accustomed to sharing large files via a service like Dropbox, it would be simple for the IRS to publish the returns online for anyone to download in bulk for free,” Noveck wrote in a recent blog post about the paper.
But if converting the Form 990 into an open-data government document sounds straightforward, the co-authors find that it isn’t a simple delivery. Liberating government data of all kinds, they write, typically requires overcoming technological, political, and cultural barriers to change.
[Originally appeared in NYU Research Digest, Spring 2013].
The Aspen Insitute today released a new report in Washington, D.C., by NYU Wagner Visiting Professor Beth Noveck and Daniel L. Goroff. The report, "Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data," shows how new technology designed to improve data on the nonprofit sector can prompt greater innovation and effectiveness.
Noveck is former director of the White House Open Government Initiative. Goroff, while at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, helped establish the new Interagency Task Force on Smart Disclosure. He is a program director with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
NYU Wagner Visiting Professor Beth Noveck is featured in the December issue of Foreign Policy magazine as one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers 2012,” and joins five others at New York University also recognized on the magazine's list -- including: Danah Boyd of Steinhardt, Chen Guangcheng of the School of Law, and, from Stern, Jonathan Haidt, Paul Romer, and Nouriel Roubini.
Professor Noveck’s book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful, has been translated into Russian, Arabic and Chinese. According to the Foreign Policy profile: “Open government isn't built in a day, or one presidential term, for that matter. But if the initiatives she [Noveck] has set in motion – from the National Archives dashboard for citizen archivists to the Department of Health and Human Services website for comparing insurance options –are any indication, Noveck has arguably done more than anyone to lay the foundations for a Washington that feels less like a cloistered village and more like an online public square.”
Professor Noveck served in the White House as the first U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and as founder and director of the White House Open Government Initiative (2009-11). She has served as an advisor to UK Prime Minister David Cameron on how technology can better employ technology in the public sector. She also served on the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team and was a volunteer advisor to the Obama for America campaign on issues of technology, innovation, and government reform. She focuses her scholarship, activism, and teaching on the future of democracy in the 21st century. Specifically, her work addresses how we can use technology to create more open and collaborative government. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, she is collaborating with colleagues to create a research network on the impact of technology on democratic institutions.
She will be a featured guest at a Foreign Policy gala on November 29 in Washington, D.C.
NYU Wagner visiting professor Beth Noveck and clinical professor Shankar Prasad are in 10 Downing St. today, Nov. 9, for the start of a two-day conversation -- co-hosted by Wagner -- on the future of democracy and the impact of technology.
They join about 40 others at a long table in the wood-paneled State Dining Room, a mix of intersecting and influential perspectives from industry, government, development, nonprofits, and universities. The participants also include Wagner MPA students Kevin Hansen and Sean Brooks.
The London gathering represents a planning meeting for a MacArthur Foundation-supported research network that will develop collaborative new strategies for tackling the world’s hardest problems.
In the evening, the group of thought leaders will head to a dinner organized by the World Bank to continue the discussion in an informal setting. They'll resume the conference on Nov. 10.
Click here to view the conversations on Storify.