IRS Opens Up Form 990 Data, Ushering Nonprofit Sector into the Age of Transparency

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Making meaningful improvements to how the federal government uses the internet can take years, new laws, regulations, demonstration projects, testimony and dogged persistence by public interest advocates and reformers in the pursuit of change. Then, all at once, a dam breaks and a new resource blossoms into a commons online. June 15, 2016 was such a day, when the IRS has begun publishing electronic nonprofit tax returns online in a machine-readable format on Amazon Web Services.

Sunlight has long held that nonprofit e-file data should be open. Now it is.

“This is a huge victory for the IRS,” open government advocate Carl Malamud said in an email. “The service stepped up to the plate and has squarely faced the issue of privacy breaches in public nonprofit returns and are now releasing machine-processable XML data for those returns. This is a huge release: 1.4 million e-file returns dating back to 2011 available for free and a commitment to update the data store on a monthly basis.”

Over the past decade, however, the IRS has not embraced publishing the tax returns of charities — called Form 990s — as open data with joy and enthusiasm, despite the clear value of opening the $1.6 trillion nonprofit sector to transparency and innovation. In fact, Malamud had to win a federal lawsuit to get the tax agency to do what it should have been doing anyway.

After a federal court ordered the IRS to disclose Form 990s as open data in 2015, however, the agency subsequently announced that it would begin working to release all of the data from electronically filed nonprofit tax returns available in a machine-readable format online by early 2016.

In the months since, the agency has worked diligently to ensure that the privacy issues Malamud had found in the millions of files the IRS disclosed to Public.Resource.org. As of June 2016, the public can now access Form 990 data on Amazon Web Services for free. Notably, the datasets are hosted in Amazon’s public cloud instead of IRS.gov, offloading demand to a private sector company that’s become a global leader in hosting apps, services and data.

It’s also worth noting that this release also fulfills an element of one of the commitments in the third U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government, modernizing administration of the Freedom of Information Act, to “Proactively Release Nonprofit Tax Filings.”

Tax filings for nonprofit organizations contain data that is legally required to be publicly released. Accessing the filings generally requires a request from the public, which can include a FOIA request, and results in more than 40 million pages provided in a non-machine-readable format. The Internal Revenue Service will launch a new process that will remove personally identifiable information before releasing the public information within electronically filed nonprofit tax filings. The electronically filed tax filings will be released as open, machine- readable data, allowing the public to review the finances and other information of more than 340,000 American nonprofit and charitable organizations.

In our correspondence, Malamud hailed the work of many others to bring this moment to pass, from professor Beth Noveck, the former director of the White House Open Government Initiative who co-authored “Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data,” to the pro bono work of Thomas R. Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine on the FOIA lawsuit, to the work of Scott Klein’s team on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and the Internet Archive.

“Nonprofit tax returns contain tremendous amounts of information about the activities of this important sector of our economy,” Noveck said via email. She continued:

With the raw data of nonprofit tax returns, it will become possible, for example, to see who is providing social services to whom and where and more easily spot the overlaps and gaps so that government and the social sector know where more investment is needed. It will become possible to build the tools to spot waste, fraud and abuse more easily than we can today. There’s rich and useful information, which can be visualized to help donors know more about where to give. When the sector itself has better business intelligence about its own activities, it can operate more effectively.

Many thanks to everyone who has collaborated to help bring the IRS further into the 21st century, not least the staff at the agency who we need to be trustworthy stewards of our private data. Protecting privacy when releasing open data is essential, and we commend the nation’s tax collector and regulator for its due diligence.

This is far from the first time Malamud’s determined efforts has led to a watershed in useful government data going online. Back in 1993, he used a grant from the National Science Foundation to obtain and publish Securities and Exchange Commission data online. In 1995, the SEC decided to publish the data itself. Two decades later, Malamud spent years buying, processing and publishing millions of nonprofit tax filings, converting scanned images and then making the bulk data available to the public.

“This is exactly analogous to the SEC and the EDGAR database,” Malamud said in an phone interview in 2013. “If you make the data available, you will get innovation.”

I expect that to be the case, given the track record of his predictions. For instance, journalists, auditors and congressional investigators will now be able to analyze the data to look for trends and patterns, finding and flagging issues. It’s also going to empower officials and watchdogs to track and reveal influence in the nonprofit world.

“This is useful information to track nonprofits,” Malamud said. “A state attorney general could just search for all executives that received loans from their employer.

More broadly, opening Form 990 data will not only improve how services like Guidestar and Charity Navigator work, but also provide the public with more equitable access and insight insight into how well their donations are being spent.

“My hope is that this will enable us to grow the nonprofit sector by enabling people to target their donations, to help the sector know better whom to serve and how, and, ultimately, to help the people who are the recipients of the good works of those in nonprofit organizations,” said Noveck.


CC-BY-SAThis work by Sunlight Foundation, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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You Don’t Matter—GOP House Votes for Monsanto’s Right to Deceive

DARK-ActToday, 275 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of H.R. 1599, the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act. By voting for the DARK Act, these politicians (including  all of Nevada’s GOP Representatives—Amodei, Hardy and Heck) voted AGAINST truth and transparency, AGAINST science, AGAINST your right to know, and AGAINST the more than century-old right of states to legislate on matters relating to food safety and labeling. If this bill passes the Senate and is signed into law, it will nullify laws in states like Maine, Connecticut and Vermont where currently, GMO products are required to be labeled as such.

They voted against the 90-percent of Americans who are in favor of mandatory labeling of GMOs. They voted against the producers of non-GMO foods. The voted against States’ Rights.  They voted against you.

Whatever your views on GMOs, there is no Constitutional justification for the federal government to preempt state laws in this area. There certainly is no justification for Congress to preempt private sector efforts to meet consumer demands for non-GMO foods, while allowing those who support the use of GMOs to do so.

H.R. 1599 was sold to Congress via multi-million dollar public relations and lobbying campaigns built on lies and deception. Rumored to have been written by Monsanto themselves, the bill’s sole purpose is to support one industry—Monsanto’s poison-peddling industry—that was founded on lies and deception from the get-go. Monsanto—that same corporation who sold Agent Orange to our government as “safe” to use on our nation’s soldiers.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Pompeo, the DARK Act gives consumers what they want: the means to know whether or not their food contains GMOs: “Consumers can choose to presume that all foods have GMO contents unless they are labeled or otherwise presented as non-GMO.  Meaning that it is knowable and it is known by the public which products have GMO and which don’t.”

Government regulation should NOT be an iffy, maybe they will, maybe the won’t kind of thing.  But, the DARK Act turns regulation upside down.  It would create a VOLUNTARY, government-run non-GMO certification program. Unless every producer of non-GMO products pays to have those products certified as non-GMO, consumers will still have no way of knowing which products contain GMOs, and which don’t. And why should the burden of labeling fall on the producers of non-GMO foods, when the risk factor is associated with those foods that do contain GMOs?

Did our Congress members vote against us because they were fooled by Monsanto’s slick, deceitful packaging of this so-called “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”? Or did they simply vote with their wallets, stuffed full of biotech and junk food industry cash?

We don’t know. Given the Citizens United ruling, we’ll probably never know.  But we better know this: We can’t let this bill get through the U.S. Senate. We need to target Senator Heller and let him know this bill is unacceptable.

The Week Ahead in Congress

In the Senate
The Senate has plans to work on at least one bill:

S 3637: Extending a federal guarantee program for banks and credit unions for two years.  According to Hill Sources, the Transaction Account Guarantee (TAG) program was created during the financial crisis of a few years ago, and financial institutions broadly support the extension. 

In the House
On Tuesday, the House will vote on a Motion to go to Conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (HR 4310), along with a Democratic Motion to Instruct Conferees.

The House could work on up to eight suspension bills:

— The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (HR 1974), which would set up a public website that would allow access to various reports mandated by Congress.

— The Eliminate Privacy Notice Confusion Act (HR 5817), which would allow banks to notify customers of data privacy policies only when those policies change.

— The Asthma Inhalers Relief Act (HR 6190), allowing the sale of all remaining Primatene Mist asthma inhalers, which were banned for sale due to environmental concerns.

— The Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act (HR 6364), establishes a commission to ensure a suitable observance of the centennial of World War I, to designate memorials to the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I, including a National World War I Memorial on the National Mall in the District of Columbia.

— The D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act (S 1379), amending the administrative authorities of the DC courts.

— The DART Act (S 1998)
, to improve management of the Department of Homeland Security.

— The GAO Mandates Revision Act (S 3315), easing reporting requirements of the Government Accountability Office.

— The No-Hassle Flying Act (S 3542), making it easier for airports to clear baggage from overseas.

SSHIX Meeting Squelches Public Comments

Given Gov. Sandoval’s recent statements relative to whether to or not to bebin planning for implementation of NV’s Health Care exchanges, many where looking forward to being able to comment on his stance at Thursday’s Silver State Health Insurance Exchange Board meeting.  Public comments for the support of the ACA and Medicaid Expansion were not allowed or heard by the board.

The SSHIX (Silver State Health Insurance Exchange) Board executive director, opened the meeting with an announcement that, “Discussion of policy and specifically the Medicaid Expansion would not be heard in the meeting – policy would be addressed at a future meeting.” With that said, it pretty much squelched any public comments on support of the ACA and Medicaid Expansion.

Further, it was announced that the August SSHIX Board Meeting has been cancelled, and the rescheduled future date will be announced later. So supporters — stay tuned!

Additionally, it was mentioned on the call by the AG (Attorney General) office that, “The board meeting is not for questions and answers, but comments from the public.” The chair of the board, mentioned that if you have questions, “Please send an email with the question to the board and they will be addressed.” It was also said that questions could be asked at the Consumer Assistance Advisory Committee (CAAC) meetings. FYI, that the next CAAC meeting is Wednesday, July 25th (via Call in, Web Broadcast, and face to face in Carson City and Las Vegas). The petition will be sent to them.

So — road blocks were put up Thursday, and support for the ACA and Medicaid Expansion were not heard; but this was only a reminder that nothing worth having is ever easy — and affordable health care for all in Nevada is definitely worth having.

The only way to take advantage of these opportunities (e.g., making public comments on policy and having your questions and concerns answered by the board) is to be informed, know when these meetings are, and just get involved. NO PROBLEM!

Please email Athena Cox, Executive Assistant, Silver State Health Insurance Exchange,and request to be on the LISTSERVE for the upcoming SSHIX meetings and you will receive an email automatically with the meeting information and agenda. If you have any policy public comments or questions, you can also send them to Athena’s email atacox@exchange.nv.gov and she will forward to the appropriate person. The point is, you can be involved.

So supporters of the Nevadans Support the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion, be not discouraged, and do not be silent. Be involved – stay engaged!!

The Nevadans for the Affordable Care Act petition continues and will continue to be delivered to the governor, state elected officials, and others until the governor makes a decision. As of this writing, the petition count is 2543 – the momentum is growing – but more signatures are needed.

Implementing health care coverage for all is too important and we citizens must not stop now. Let’s keep the petition going — 3,000 signatures and even more, by the end of the week, WE CAN DO IT! Please pass the petition on in support of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion.

Thank you FOR ALL that you do!

Alise & John Davis

Photographers — Know Your Rights

Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties. Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply. Learn more >>