Consortium for Local Ownership and Use of Data, Inc.

When Standards Interact: A CLOUD-Inspired Future for XBRL

During a recent trip to Seattle, I had the pleasure of sitting down for lunch with Charlie Hoffman, father of XBRL. Paul Wilkinson, Chief Strategy Officer for CLOUD and former Sr. Adviser to Chairman Cox at the SEC, had introduced us, and we’ve had a few good phone conversations over the past year about CLOUD and XBRL.

During our lunch, Charlie had an interesting reaction to CLOUD, describing it as the “logical model for the semantic web.” That lunch conversation, plus my reading of his and Liv Watson’s excellent book, “XBRL for Dummies,” have sparked some interesting thoughts about ways in which CLOUD and XBRL might interact in practical ways.

With all the discussion over transparency, open government and “government” data, it seemed like an interesting example could be culled from current places in which XBRL is already being used: public filings. Of course, the very fact that a verb like “filed” is used to describe the process tells me that even without CLOUD, XBRL is not meeting its full potential. If I understand the process for SEC filings in XBRL correctly, a public company still "sends" or “files” their XBRL Instance to the SEC, so as to meet their filing requirements. In the world of the Internet, this makes no sense to me at all. If we had to "send" HTML documents around the Internet, the Web would never have taken off!

That being said, I will move on... The example that follows will highlight how XBRL-wrapped data, further empowered by a contextual set of CLOUD tags, could create a more dynamic and secure process.

Before doing that, though, it is useful to think about ways in which we already interact with government and “tag” those relationships. [To better understand these concepts, it would be useful to watch CLOUD and the Power of WHO and Connecting WHO and WHAT in the CLOUD at our homepage or on our channel "ANewCLOUD" at YouTube.]

Current "Tagging" By Government

As citizens and businesses, we already have “tagged” information, provided by our government. Our drivers license or social security card is a government "tag." Of course, these particular tags are physically delivered, so we all accumulate a lot of different cards to manage our physical tag infrastructure with the government. Beyond our drivers license or social security card, there are passports, military ids and a whole myriad of other bits of plastic or paper we must carry around. In most cases, to receive one of these various tags, we must fill out duplicate information on multiple forms to resubmit data that is already maintained in numerous databases, scattered across government silos and agencies. You get the idea.

Reconceiving the Relationship Between People and Data

Everyone wants to open the government data stores, and that is certainly one step to transparency, but the mess of data behind the store windows may only complicate transparency, not improve it. The reality is that we must focus on people, and not just the data. Our data-centric approach drives this deeper architectural problem. By starting with data and then associating individuals with that data, it is simply impossible for this problem to go away or best case, incredibly hard to fix with current approaches.

However, starting with people and associating their data with them, changes the whole construct of the problem. For example, my birthday (a data point) doesn't change, but it is replicated in multiple data silos, from my insurance provider to my doctor's office to my bank account and to all of the government "tags" I've already enumerated.

It doesn't have to be this way. As Paul and I discussed in our article Set the Default to Open published in Volume 14, Issue 1 of the Texas Review of Law and Politics, we need to move beyond eGovernment to meGovernment. As we explored in Section 8 of that piece, meGovernment has implications for both delivery of government services and regulation.

XBRL SEC Filings in a CLOUD-enabled World

The Set the Default to Open article explores a number of examples of meGovernment in healthcare and education settings. I will focus here on the filing of XBRL reports by public companies with the SEC.

If you think about the discrete, as well as aggregated data, that makes up a filing, the only difference amongst the data is who has "rights" to it. Currently, we package the data in different worksheets or databases to handle these access issues. Rather than recreating the data in multiple silos to handle the issue of visibility, a CLOUD-enabled Internet looks at the problem differently. With a language for people, the cross-tags to the data would handle how this information is seen by different people. In the CLOUD world, XBRL would be considered a type of WHAT tag. Each of the discrete bits of company data could be “wrapped” in not only XBRL but also be “wrapped” by WHO tags.

So, an analyst at Company X, may only have rights to see and validate certain discrete data, while a controller or CFO at the same company, would have rights to not only see a wider array of discrete data but also see that data aggregated. When the SEC looked at the data, they would want to know which data at Company X had been cross-tagged with the CFO and CEO's WHO tags, so as to ensure that the data met the necessary filing requirements. Rather than sending an instance, the XBRL data could simply stay on company servers, while being protected by the new rights structure envisioned by CLOUD and the many intersections between WHO and WHAT.

Taking this example another step, it would also be possible for company shareholders to view this corporate information differently than those that don't own shares. There is another WHAT tag, known as the CUSIP, that would enable this variation in visibility. CUSIP is the 9-character alphanumeric code that identifies any North American security for the purposes of facilitating clearing and settlement of trades. Everyone that owns a share of a company could connect their WHO profile to this WHAT tag, thus giving them a different “window” into the XBRL-wrapped data from companies that they own shares in.

Within the new fabric of the Internet enabled by CLOUD, the relationships between WHAT tags are also woven together, connecting the appropriate XBRL-wrapped data to the necessary CUSIP WHAT tags. CLOUD has modeled a use case and rudimentary screenshots for this idea with SWIFT around their corporate actions project with XBRL and DTCC.

Now that we have walked through the intricacies of linking WHO and WHAT and WHAT and WHAT, the last link in the puzzle is to understand how WHO and WHO connect. (WHO profiles can exist not just for individuals but for entities as well, like a company, government, school or agency.) Employees at a company could tag their individual WHO profiles to Company X and thus be cross-tagged with Company X's institutional WHO profile. That cross-tag would confer certain added and unique rights to their individual profiles.

The SEC would also have its institutional WHO profile, which could be cross-tagged to its agency employees. The resulting intersection of these WHOs and WHATs would determine what information would be made visible where. One set of data could be visible to one SEC employee but not another.

Evolution of Tagging by Government

So, by making data “smart,” it is possible for information to be transformed and made accessible in unique and different ways, without having to ship it around the Internet as if the Internet were nothing more than a 21st century courier service. The same data in a CLOUD-enabled world can be “viewed” by analyst, CFO, shareholder and securities alike without scattering the same data in multiple databases. However, those “views” are unique and built around the individual.

This example should not only highlight how CLOUD and XBRL might interact in the case of public filings with the SEC but spark some ideas on how our government tagging could move into the 21st Century as well. I simply don’t need another card to carry in my digital wallet.

Before doing that, though, it is useful to think about ways in which we already interact with government and “tag” those relationships. [To better understand these concepts, it would be useful to watch CLOUD and the Power of WHO and Connecting WHO and WHAT in the CLOUD at our homepage or on our channel "ANewCLOUD" at YouTube.]

Current "Tagging" By Government

As citizens and businesses, we already have “tagged” information, provided by our government. Our drivers license or social security card is a government "tag." Of course, these particular tags are physically delivered, so we all accumulate a lot of different cards to manage our physical tag infrastructure with the government. Beyond our drivers license or social security card, there are passports, military ids and a whole myriad of other bits of plastic or paper we must carry around. In most cases, to receive one of these various tags, we must fill out duplicate information on multiple forms to resubmit data that is already maintained in numerous databases, scattered across government silos and agencies. You get the idea.

Reconceiving the Relationship Between People and Data

Everyone wants to open the government data stores, and that is certainly one step to transparency, but the mess of data behind the store windows may only complicate transparency, not improve it. The reality is that we must focus on people, and not just the data. Our data-centric approach drives this deeper architectural problem. By starting with data and then associating individuals with that data, it is simply impossible for this problem to go away or best case, incredibly hard to fix with current approaches.

However, starting with people and associating their data with them, changes the whole construct of the problem. For example, my birthday (a data point) doesn't change, but it is replicated in multiple data silos, from my insurance provider to my doctor's office to my bank account and to all of the government "tags" I've already enumerated.

It doesn't have to be this way. As Paul and I discussed in our article Set the Default to Open published in Volume 14, Issue 1 of the Texas Review of Law and Politics, we need to move beyond eGovernment to meGovernment. As we explored in Section 8 of that piece, meGovernment has implications for both delivery of government services and regulation.

XBRL SEC Filings in a CLOUD-enabled World

The Set the Default to Open article explores a number of examples of meGovernment in healthcare and education settings. I will focus here on the filing of XBRL reports by public companies with the SEC.

If you think about the discrete, as well as aggregated data, that makes up a filing, the only difference amongst the data is who has "rights" to it. Currently, we package the data in different worksheets or databases to handle these access issues. Rather than recreating the data in multiple silos to handle the issue of visibility, a CLOUD-enabled Internet looks at the problem differently. With a language for people, the cross-tags to the data would handle how this information is seen by different people. In the CLOUD world, XBRL would be considered a type of WHAT tag. Each of the discrete bits of company data could be “wrapped” in not only XBRL but also “wrapped” by WHO tags.

So, an analyst at Company X, may only have rights to see and validate certain discrete data, while a controller or CFO at the same company, would have rights to not only see a wider array of discrete data but also see that data aggregated. When the SEC looked at the data, they would want to know which data at Company X had been cross-tagged with the CFO and CEO's WHO tags, so as to ensure that the data met the necessary filing requirements. Rather than sending an instance, the XBRL data could simply stay on company servers, while being protected by the new rights structure envisioned by CLOUD and the many intersections between WHO and WHAT.

Taking this example another step, it would also be possible for company shareholders to view this corporate information differently than those that don't own shares. There is another WHAT tag, known as the CUSIP, that would enable this variation in visibility. CUSIP is the 9-character alphanumeric code that identifies any North American security for the purposes of facilitating clearing and settlement of trades. Everyone that owns a share of a company could connect their WHO profile to this WHAT tag, thus giving them a different “window” into the XBRL-wrapped data from companies that they own shares in.

Within the new fabric of the Internet enabled by CLOUD, the relationships between WHAT tags are also woven together, connecting the appropriate XBRL-wrapped data to the necessary CUSIP WHAT tags. CLOUD has modeled a use case and rudimentary screenshots for this idea with SWIFT around their corporate actions project with XBRL and DTCC.

Now that we have walked through the intricacies of linking WHO and WHAT and WHAT and WHAT, the last link in the puzzle is to understand how WHO and WHO connect. (WHO profiles can exist not just for individuals but for entities as well, like a company, government, school or agency.) Employees at a company could tag their individual WHO profiles to Company X and thus be cross-tagged with Company X's institutional WHO profile. That cross-tag would confer certain added and unique rights to their individual profiles.

The SEC would also have its institutional WHO profile, which could be cross-tagged to its agency employees. The resulting intersection of these WHOs and WHATs would determine what information would be made visible where. One set of data could be visible to one SEC employee but not another.

Evolution of Tagging by Government

So, by making data “smart,” it is possible for information to be transformed and made accessible in unique and different ways, without having to ship it around the Internet as if the Internet were nothing more than a 21st century courier service. The same data in a CLOUD-enabled world can be “viewed” by analyst, CFO, shareholder and securities alike without scattering the same data in multiple databases. However, those “views” are unique and built around the individual.

This example should not only highlight how CLOUD and XBRL might interact in the case of public filings with the SEC but spark some ideas on how our government tagging could move into the 21st Century as well. I simply don’t need another card to carry in my digital wallet.

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