Better know a TCamper: OpenGov Grantees edition

A crowd of people from behind waving their wands in the air.
A session from TCamp 2013. Photo credit: Spike/Flickr

One of the best parts of TransparencyCamp is that it’s a great place to discuss and develop ideas. Whether you’re thinking of a new opengov tool, a set of data you want to open up or how to craft a new transparency policy, TCamp is an ideal environment to share ideas and get constructive feedback. After all, where else are you going to be around a diverse crowd of 500 opengov journalists, developers, policymakers and others?

At Sunlight, we love the fact that TCamp has evolved into a place that nurtures opengov ideas — and we try to support exceptional ones we come across with our OpenGov Grants program. If you come up with a great idea at TCamp — and need some financial assistance to help see it through — definitely apply today!

And, as it happens, some of our previous OpenGov Grantees happen to be attending TransparencyCamp this year! Today, we’re introducing you to Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions and Becky Sweger of the National Priorities project. Be sure to say hi if you see them at TCamp!

Marc Joffe, Public Sector Credit Solutions

Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions, which applies open data and analytics to rating government bonds. Joffe received an OpenGov Grant to gather financial disclosures for California local governments (typically in PDF form), extract a subset of data from these documents and publish both the location of the documents and standardized data on a free, non-commercial web site. If you read the Sunlight blog, you may recognize him from his various guest posts, too. At this year’s TransparencyCamp, Joffe will be leading a session entitled, “Open Local Government Financial Data: Standardized and Machine Readable;” be sure to check it out and vote it up if you’d like to see it!

We asked Joffe a little bit about his work and what he wants to see at TCamp 2014:

1) What is the mission of Public Sector Credit Solutions, and how does it use open data to accomplish that goal?

PSCS uses quantitative models to estimate the credit risk of governments – national, state and local. Our open source models rely on actual and projected government revenues, expenditures and debt burdens. These values appear in budgets, audited financial reports and other documents published by governments at all levels. Our work would be easier if these data points were published in machine readable form. Currently, almost all local governments provide the bulk of their financial data in PDFs – which are notoriously difficult to use. To deal with this, I have teamed up with Sunlight on two projects: (1) the PDF Liberation Hackathon which highlighted technologies that assist with PDF data extraction, and (2) advocating that the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board – the body that regulates the US municipal bond market – publish audited financial results for state and local governments in a standardized, machine-readable form.

2) What can people do to help support your cause? Where can people learn more about your work?

My largest effort thus far has involved California cities. Readers can see my work – which was partially supported by a Sunlight OpenGov grant – at Anyone interested in creating a similar tool for another state should contact me.

3) This is your first TCamp – What are you looking forward to? What do you hope to get out of TCamp?

I hope to meet others that are interested in opening up government financial data. There are two enormous benefits to collaborating in this area. First, our voices are more likely to be heard if we coordinate our efforts to lobby for transparency. An example of this happened when I co-authored an opinion piece with Shannon Sohl at Northern Illinois University in the Bond Buyer on the topic of applying XBRL to municipal disclosures. When articles are co-authored, readers get the message that this isn’t just one person’s idea. Second, we can exchange tips and techniques for scraping the data while it remains embedded in PDFs.

At last year’s TCamp, Chris Lintner from Public Insight Corporation presented on a related topic. I would not have known about his work if I hadn’t stumbled across it on the T-Camp web site. By physically attending this year, I hope to systematically engage everyone in the transparency community who shares my interest.

Becky Sweger, National Priorities Project

Becky Sweger is the director of data and technology at National Priorities Project. NPP is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to making the U.S. transparent and accessible so people can prioritize and influence how their tax dollars are spent. Sweger and NPP received an OpenGov Grant supporting the Federal Priorities Database 2.0, an online tool for comparing federal expenditures and social indicators. She’s also written on the Sunlight blog on Hack for Western Mass. Sweger is also a TCamp veteran!

We asked Sweger a little about her work, and her TransparencyCamp experience in the past:

1) Why does federal spending transparency matter to everyday people, and what does NPP do around the issue?

At the policy level, NPP joins Sunlight and many other allies to advocate for better federal spending data, because the quality of localized federal spending data has declined in recent years. At the practical level, our research team scrubs and analyzes this information to show how federal money flows to states and communities — people have a right and responsibility to oversee and influence how their tax dollars are spent.

2) You were an attendee of a previous TCamp — how did that experience help you in your transparency work, or lead you to develop new ideas/projects?

NPP is “of D.C.” but not “in D.C.,” so TCamp is an invaluable chance to meet people doing similar work, not only in the U.S. but around the world. I rely on my TCamp connections throughout the year for insight into what’s happening at the agencies, ideas for solving data problems and opportunities to lobby for change. These insights help us serve people all over the country.

3) The DATA Act has cleared Congress — what exactly does that mean, and what’s next?

The DATA Act is a great first step, especially the call for government-wide data standards. If implemented well, that means we’ll finally be able to trace a dollar throughout the budget lifecycle. Right now, when the U.S. Treasury cuts a check, we can’t trace that money back to its original appropriation or budget authority. However, there’s some hard work ahead. Standardizing and centralizing data across any organization is difficult, let alone doing so across the federal government.

4) What can people do to help support the cause of federal spending transparency? Where can people learn more about your work?

Federal spending transparency advocates need to watch the implementation of the DATA Act closely and take advantage of opportunities to provide feedback. There’s a wide range of use cases for accurate, complete and local federal spending data, and we have to make sure these real-world scenarios are represented so we don’t end up with another website like that doesn’t serve the public.

A great place to get accessible, plain-English information about taxes, federal spending and the budget is by visiting our website and joining our mailing list.


Join us at TransparencyCamp May 30 and 31 just outside of Washington, D.C. to meet Becky, Marc and other folks who are working to making our government more open, accountable and transparent. Register today here — and hurry! Space is limited.