This Week in Civic Tech: IRS Publishes Nonprofit Tax Returns, Sunlight Foundation Releases Open Data Policy Playbook

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / July 7, 2016
The Internal Revenue Service Building, Washington, D.C. Flickr/Ray Tsang

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

IRS Opens Nonprofit Tax Return Data

The IRS just took a decisive step forward in making nonprofits more accountable.

On June 15, the agency started publishing nonprofit tax returns — via its Form 990 — as open data. Watchdog groups, journalists, researchers and citizens now have access to the e-file data that will illuminate such things as political connections, CEO salaries and related characteristics of nonprofits.

Open data advocate Carl Malamud, popularly known for his work opening copyrighted state and city legal codes, praised the release as a fundamental and transformative move toward transparency.

“What is especially significant is that this data won’t be the province of a few services, such as GuideStar [a nonprofit information vendor], that jealously guard their position over the data,” Malamud said. “It will be available for any college student or Internet startup or established venture like Google or LinkedIn to use.”

The release entails a robust 1.4 million e-file tax returns that date back to 2011, all of which are now free. The IRS also has promised updates on a monthly basis. Malamud said the effort to open the data required an eight-year crusade by a dozen or so digital transparency advocates, including Beth Noveck, co-founder and director of GovLab, which highlighted the issue in a report published by the Aspen Institute; free speech Attorney Thomas Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine, who spent two years in a pro bono legal battle for the public records; and ProPublica Journalist Scott Klein, who directed his digital team to build the Nonprofit Explorer, a tool to analyze the data.

A significant shout out was also given to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and his staff.

“We should not forget that many, many IRS employees have devoted a lot of time to figuring out how to make this data available and how to do it best,” Malamud said. “They have done so after drastic budget cuts and numerous distractions.”

Sunlight Foundation Releases Open Data Policy Playbook 

For cities eager to enter the open data movement, the Sunlight Foundation — a Washington, D.C.-based transparency group — has released a playbook to codify the opening up of public data that is freely accessible on digital devices. The playbook, titled Public Policy for Public Data, offers “a step-by-step checklist and resource guide for creating an open data policy.”

The impetus behind the project, funded through the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities initiative, is to help cities understand and apply the fundamentals of open data. The guide takes a peripheral approach, holding off on technical minutia, while solidifying an overarching framework for open data use.

In a supporting post, Sunlight’s Open Data project lead Stephen Larrick said that while some might dismiss open policies as flowery wishing, there is merit to them: They codify best practices with data; they build internal buy-in; they express mayoral support; and they build a legal framework for accountability and enforcement.

Along with how-to information, Sunlight embedded an interactive map on the playbook site that identifies cities with open data policies — and links directly to those policies.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.