Beauty, XML, and more: A conversation with Hudson Hollister

For over 13 years, DataTracks has been on the front lines of regulatory reporting around the world. The company has seen multiple new standards be adopted for compliance, and has consistently advocated for advancements and improvements in the way organizations and regulators handle business information. We’re constantly on the lookout for illuminating and inspiring stories from within the domain of information and data transparency. We reached out to one of the largest names in the field, Hudson Hollister, and what follows is a conversation that Amruth, our head of content, had with him.

As new as I am to the concepts of regulatory compliance and data transparency, I can appreciate just how important the issue is. But you know who’s not new to this world? Hudson Hollister. The man that founded not one, but two organizations, dedicated to making business and government data open and transparent. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to talk to the man at the forefront of open data advocacy, and thankfully, he agreed to talk to me as well.

Hudson Hollister (Source: The Data Coalition)

Hudson Hollister founded the Data Transparency Coalition (now Data Coalition) — a trade association that, on behalf of both the public and private sectors, advocates for the standardized publication of government information as open, machine-readable data — in 2012, and has been the driving force behind crafting cornerstone US government data reforms like the DATA Act (Digital Accountability and Transparency Act) of 2014 and the Financial Transparency Act (FTA). He established the non-profit research organization Data Foundation in early 2016 to work alongside the Data Coalition and partner with government to deliver insights, education, and programming supporting open data transformations.

He has since announced his resignation from both Data Coalition (as Executive Director) and its sister organization Data Foundation (as President), effective 1 October 2018, in pursuit of new challenges. He remains one of the world’s leading experts on matters of open and transparent data, and will continue to serve as a member on the board of directors for both organizations.

Hudson has received accolades like the FCW Federal 100 award in 2015, and was a Fastcase 50 winner in 2016, but to me, his crowning achievement has to be being one of the 50 most beautiful people of 2010.

So that must a great conversation starter, right? Have you met me, I’m one of the most beautiful people of 2010.

Haha, well, I certainly try not to start with that. Although, I suppose it’s a little more appealing than, “Hello! Would you like to talk about XML?”

I would actually. Thank you for taking the time out to talk to me!

I really appreciate the chance to talk about this stuff, it’s my favorite topic. So I’m always happy to have conversations like this.

Okay, let me start with a personal question. What drives the man that founded the Data Coalition? What gets you out of bed when you’re having a bad day?

A direct route to human flourishing

My overriding motivation in my career — and integrated into my whole life — is to make the interface between the public sector and the private sector more efficient. It sounds like an awfully abstract idea, but I can connect it to human benefit very fast. If the connection between regulated entities and regulators, the connection between society and its government didn’t require so much manual labor, if compliance were automatic, if reporting were easy and ubiquitous, costs and rent-seeking would decline dramatically. Manual labor — copying and pasting wouldn’t be as necessary. Investments in compliance functions would be much lower, and the result of that is economic growth. Another result of that is, better enforcements. Which also leads to economic growth. And the better economic growth translates to people lifted out of poverty, and human flourishing. I don’t know of a more direct route to human flourishing in the tech industry than that.

That doesn’t sound all that abstract. It makes perfect sense! Not to mention inspiring.

That’s pretty much been the main motivation. And the work I’ve been privileged to do over the last six years has been an opportunity to connect directly to that motivation. At the Data Coalition, and Data Foundation, we’ve tried to bring the technology industry on-board with that motivation. On that front, I think I have an advantage. In order for this to be sustainable, we need to connect it to the profit motive. And our organizations do just that. The business members of the Data Coalition and supporters of the Data Foundation need to not just embrace this nice goal of reducing compliance costs, automating the interface between the public and private sectors, but they must also profit from it. That is the point where public interest and self-interest align.

That’s an extremely realistic, pragmatic way to go about it. No wonder you’ve managed to drive so much change. But help me understand something. You were in government, right? You served as counsel to the house committee on oversight and government reform, and you were also with the SEC. What prompted you to quit your job in government? Why did you think you could effect change more efficiently outside of a Capitol Hill job?

About a year into my job at the house committee, efforts to advance the DATA Act and what later became the FTA were met mostly with indifference. My then boss, Congressman Darrell Issa had introduced those bills to some additional support, but they went no further; the senate would not take them up.

Leveraging the technology industry

But even then, I understood the self-interest of the technology industry, I just needed to leverage it. Changes in federal spending from the DATA Act and in regulatory reporting from the FTA would ultimately serves the interests of the tech industry. Technology could replace layers upon layers of manual work if these things happened. So after months of trying to persuade tech companies to start an organization to advance these policies, I took matters into my own hands. There had been some interest, but I’d set myself a deadline of January 2012. Nothing had happened by then, and so I honored my deadline. I resigned, and I started the Data Transparency Coalition.

That’s so courageous! But if I’m being honest, it also sounds a little bit scary.

I’m sure you’ve found yourself in a similar situation at some point — maybe you made a choice that you knew to be the right decision, but it was also frightening, or unpleasant. And this certainly was. I didn’t have an income; as a government employee, I didn’t have a lot of savings, but I was certain that this was the right thing to do. It really came down to a single moment. I remember the moment — pacing back and forth in the house office building on Capitol Hill, and thinking that I didn’t have the strength to go through with this decision. And I remember a moment of sudden reassurance that I don’t think could have come from within myself. It has to have come from outside myself, the realization that this could happen, and that in the grand scheme of things, finding myself a few months of consulting income was a fairly trivial thing. I remember that that surge of reassurance was the reason I then walked into the office of the chief of staff, the staff director of the house oversight committee, and announced that I was resigning.

Oh wow, that makes the entire thing so much more dramatic. You just upped and left. And you founded the Data Coalition. So, to someone who has no context, no idea about open data, about transparency in governance data, how would you explain the Data Coalition — its mission, and its importance in today’s world?

I’d start by saying that the most important commodity in today’s world is information. And there exist serious barriers to the easy flow of that information — like unnecessary costs that impede the functioning and management of the government, ultimately deterring economic growth.

United we stand, divided we govern

If citizens can’t understand what their government is doing, or worse still — and this can happen just as often — if government managers can’t understand what their own government organizations are doing, then you have distrust in government; you have inefficient governments justifying that distrust. If, on the other hand, governance information was disclosed freely, citizens and leaders rely on the same dataset, for a shared understanding between a government and its people. We’re beginning to think that happened with the DATA Act 2014, with usaspending.gov — the portal is for government managers and citizens alike. With the shared understanding, we can build better trust in a more efficient government.

The link to economic growth is pretty direct. The interface between the public and private sectors is streamlined, compliance is automated… I can’t think of a better way to stress the importance of the Coalition’s mission.

Without something like usaspending.gov, if government leaders — through no fault of their own — are unaware of what their own organizations are doing, how do you think we can keep democracy democratic in this age of information? How can citizens be educated and empowered to hold their government accountable?

Well, data transparency into government spending and operations does not obviate the need for a vigorous civil sector. There will always need to be civil service organizations that seek to hold government accountable, and communicate with media and citizens from one political side or another. Even with full data transparency into spending, most constituents won’t have the time to sign on to a government website and browse around; they’re busy with their lives. But, data transparency can be at the headwaters of the whole ecosystem of intelligence on governance. The civil sector can take that useful, searchable, open data, and interpret it and build theses on it.

Open governance data can remove some, not all, but some of the political controversy.

It’s much better for a democracy to be fighting over opinions than over facts.
If you’re going to be fighting over facts…

The facts ought to be clear. They ought to be understood, and data transparency allows for the facts to be understood and agreed [upon], so that everybody can fight over opinions and philosophies. That’s the only way a government can progress. Move forward.

Tell me about the other side of that coin, about how savvy government leaders are and how they approach data transparency. Have you seen stances change with changing administrations?

I don’t have a perfect answer to that. Every industry tries to connect with government, in order to advance its interests. That is very normal in a democracy. As we pursue these ideas of data transparency, we certainly must utilize the self-interest of the technology industry, and in the case of the Data Coalition, we, very honestly, take advantage of it. Especially with technology companies that sell to government. I think that’s normal; natural. It reflects the fact that our world is imperfect. Politicians are motivated by their constituencies and by their supporters to pursue their interests. I mean, many politicians don’t completely understand the technologies and the companies that they do business with, but they have to be educated on them. They look to their constituencies and supporters for that education; in our case, we try to channel the self-interest of the technology constituencies to effect that education.

A time of great change, but also no change

As for changing administrations, in the US government, the idea that spending and operations data should be transparent is not a political idea; it’s just plumbing. Just infrastructure. And we’ve seen that the change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration has not greatly changed the way that the White House and federal agencies see that idea.

Politically, there certainly is a big cultural difference from Obama officials to Trump officials. I’ve met them. And they have very different political goals, fighting very different political battles. For the most part, those battles don’t affect the push to adopt consistent data standards for governance information. If they do, it can get bad. But many of the leaders in data policy advocating the adoption of open data for management — they’re the same people. In many cases, these initiatives are led by leaders who are not politicians, they’re in career civil service.

That’s comforting, knowing that leaders on opposite spectrums agree on this fundamental idea. It puts the reality of transparent governance within reach. When do you see #OpenGovData becoming an absolute reality? What would you say are some of the potential challenges standing in the way?

The broadest challenge is that the US government is the largest, and most complex organization in human history. Any large organization is going to have difficulty organizing itself — its data. There is no easy route to free-flowing data, but we do believe it’s possible. The size and complexity of the US government make it very difficult to adopt consistent data structures for spending, for performance, for grant reporting, or for regulatory reporting and enforcing compliance. But through education, and gradual, grinding consensus building, we can change the culture to one that’s more open to these ideas and understands what these ideas mean.

Journey before destination

But there’s no final destination, no nirvana in view. Or if there is, there’s no timeframe for the nirvana. We do believe that a future of freely flowing data in government management is coming. Sometimes I joke that we’re like early 20th century Marxists — we believe that the utopia of the proletariat is inevitable, but we also work very hard to get there. The Marxists were proved wrong, but we understand that our vision of the future requires all of our efforts.

So inside an entity as sprawling as the US government, how do you juggle the different interests, the different priorities, and different ideologies?

Well, like I mentioned earlier, the idea of data transparency isn’t a political one. But for that idea to be reflected in policy changes, politicians must embrace it. And I will be honest; we use very different arguments with republicans and democrats. I exaggerate these differences sometimes for comedic effect. When we were campaigning for the passage of the DATA Act, I’m certainly guilty of using different words, different language, sitting in the office of a republican than what I did in the office of a democrat. I may have told republicans that if we were to make government spending fully open and transparent, then the waste and the corruption would become visible. I may have told democrats that if we made all of the spending open and transparent, then all of the wonderful things government does will be fully easy to understand. Now that’s an exaggeration. But not too much of an exaggeration. The interesting thing is that there are circumstances in which both of those statements are true.

Haha! You should also be on a list of the smoothest people of all time. But jokes aside, I believe the Data Foundation and Coalition are doing some of the most important work of our time. I think their vision of the future will soon become our reality, paving the way for human flourishing. When that happens, I’ll know exactly who to thank. I’m delighted that I got the chance to talk to you!

Like I said, I always appreciate the chance to talk about this stuff. It was a good time. Take care!

This interview was edited slightly for structure and concision. If you’re interested in learning more about the subject, Hudson recommends a couple of research papers published by the Data Foundation.