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Giving Americans Easier Access to Their Own Data

The Internal Revenue Service's new "Get Transcript" tool allows taxpayers improved access to their own personal tax data. This innovative information service is the latest in a series of "My Data Initiatives": Federal efforts to empower Americans with easy, secure, and useful access to their personal data.

“Today, I’m announcing that we’re making even more government data available, and we’re making it easier for people to find and to use. And that’s going to help launch more start-ups. It’s going to help launch more businesses… It’s going to help more entrepreneurs come up with products and services that we haven’t even imagined yet.”

– President Obama, May 9, 2013

Over the past few years, the Obama Administration has launched a series of Open Data Initiatives, which, for the first time in history, have released troves of valuable data that were previously hard to access in areas such as health, energy, climate, education, public safety, finance, and global development. Entrepreneurs and businesses across the Nation are using open government data to build new products and services, launch new industries, and create jobs.

In addition to open data efforts to make public information digital and easier to find and use, the Administration has also been working to make it easier for Americans to gain access to their own data. Beginning in 2010, the Obama Administration launched a series of My Data Initiatives to empower Americans with easy, secure, and useful access to their personal data -- and to increase citizens’ access to private-sector applications and services that can be used to analyze it. As discussed in the 2014 Big Data report, the My Data Initiatives help establish a strong model for personal data accessibility that the Administration hopes will become widely adopted in the private and public sectors. The ability to access one’s personal information will be increasingly important in the future, when more aspects of life will involve data transactions between individuals, companies, and institutions.

One of the newest My Data efforts is the IRS tool, Get Transcript. Launched in 2014, Get Transcript allows taxpayers to securely view, print, and download a PDF record of the last three years of their IRS tax account. Get Transcript has produced over 17 million so-called tax transcripts, reducing phone, mail, or in-person requests by approximately 40% from last year. Secure access to your own tax data makes it easier to demonstrate your income with prospective lenders and employers, or help with tax preparation. What was a paper-based transcript process which took multiple days has been made instantaneous and easy for the American taxpayer.

The IRS is an agency that serves virtually every American, and runs one of the nation’s largest customer service operations. To give an idea of the size and scope of responsibilities, the Internal Revenue Service:

  • receives over 80 million phone calls per year, mostly from people eager to hear the status of their refund, understand a notice, make a payment, or update their account;
  • sends out nearly 200 million paper notices annually; and
  • receives over 50 million unique visitors to its website each month during filing season.

Meeting this demand from citizens is a challenge with limited staff and resources. Nonetheless, the IRS is committed to improving service to citizens across all of its channels – whether it’s by phone, walk-ins, or especially its digital services.

Building on the initial success of Get Transcript, there are more exciting improvements to IRS services in the pipeline. For instance, millions of taxpayers contact the IRS every year to ask about their tax status, whether their filing was received, if their refund was processed, or if their payment posted. In the future, taxpayers will be able to answer these types of questions independently by signing in to a mobile-friendly, personalized online account to conduct transactions and see all of their tax information in one place. Users will be able to view account history and balance, make payments or see payment status, or even authorize their tax preparer to view or make changes to their tax return. This will also include the ability to download personal tax information in an easy to use and machine-readable format so that taxpayers can share with trusted recipients if desired.

The secure and convenient data accessibility and portability envisioned by the IRS is a goal of all of the My Data Initiatives. Other My Data Initiatives include:

  • Blue Button: The Blue Button initiative has enabled more than 150 million Americans co to securely access their health information to better manage their health care and finances. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs launched the Blue Button to give veterans the ability to download their health records. Since then, more than 5.4 million veterans have used the Blue Button tool to access their personal health information.
  • Green Button: The Administration partnered with electric utilities in 2012 to create the Green Button, which provides families and business with easy access to their energy usage information in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format. Today, 48 utilities and electricity suppliers serving more than 59 million homes and businesses have committed to giving their customers “Green Button” access to help them save energy.
  • MyStudentData: The Department of Education launched a MyStudentData Download button to make it possible for students and borrowers to download their Federal student loan balances, grant information, or Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) data and use that information with third-party tools to better understand their choices when paying off student debt or choosing where to attend school. Nearly 9.4 million students and parents successfully accessed the IRS Data Retrieval Tool for the 13-14 FAFSA application cycle reducing errors and making the process simpler and easier for students and their families.

Nick Sinai is U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer

Rajive Mathur is Director, Online Services at the Internal Revenue Service