What is xbrl?
To begin with “XBRL” by itself is not inherently important: it is only a data format, and it is fully conceivable that many alternative data formats could be chosen.
No, xbrl is important only for what it represents, and that can be stated simply: Publish your damned data.
Consider, a mere 30 years ago, in 1980, the standard for machine communication was a typewriter, and the standard for the typewriter is the QWERTY keyboard. Is QWERTY the best technology? Not necessarily, by any means. But since the typewriter was invented more than 100 years before, it was the standard technology, and QWERTY remains the keyboard standard today (although QWERTY itself is under increasing threat of obsolescence from input devices such as the mouse, voice recognition and ever more sophisticated computer input devices).
Today, however, technology is different, because the Internet has made it practical to assert that any information, once collected or typed, need never be collected or typed again. If, in 1980, 10 people asked for 10 copies of a township budget, it had to be typed 10 times, or at least photocopied. With the advent of the Internet, making the information available once is making it available to everyone, forever, a million times or 10 million times.
XBRL is merely an extension of XML, the basic format of the Internet. It is the technology, the agreed upon standard, that allows clever kids to put data on Google Maps or your cell phone or essentially anywhere they want to put it, and to do things with that data that have not even been imagined yet. This represents a huge increase in knowledge and productivity.
It is certainly true that most government officials do not yet know what XBRL or XML is, but they certainly do type their data, and they are able to save that data in digitized formats, whether plain text or csv or pdf or rtf or any of a dozen or more common, publicly available formats. The significance of these many formats is no more important than the distinction between pica and elite typewriters. If your government–your county, your city or village, your township or your state agency–tells you they can’t make the data available, tell them they are wrong. It is as easy as deciding to do it. And if they don’t do it, and soon, OhioCASB will.
Transparency demands that governments digitize their data and make it available. To everyone. Now.