There are a number of actions taken by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that deserve attention and qualify as practices that should be replicated by other agencies. As three individuals from outside of government, we believe the compliment of these activities demonstrate that by most standards the CFPB is not your grandfather’s government agency – instead, it is forward thinking, transparent, accountable, and innovative.
CFPB has made creative use of online searchable databases to educate and empower consumers. On June 19, the agency established a public online database of credit card complaints from customers. The Consumer Complaint Database (http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase/) – a beta version – allows consumers shopping for a credit card to view data about other customers’ experiences in order to avoid abusive practices and poor customer service. The database will allow consumers to make more informed choices about credit cards. In addition, this transparency should create an incentive for companies to improve their business practices.
While the initial database only includes information about credit cards, the CFPB has proposed to expand the database to include the other financial products it regulates, such as mortgages and student loans. Given the many abuses practiced by the mortgage industry, that dataset would be particularly important for American consumers.
The beta version of the Consumer Complaint Database doesn’t just make data available to the public in some giant spreadsheet. The tools allows users to search and sort data for specific issues including the type of complaint (such as “late fee,” “APR or interest rate,” or “collection practices”), or company name. The website also lets developers extract data through an API, empowering others to use the CFPB data to build more robust websites. In addition, the database shows the type of response the company offered to the complainant, and whether the consumer disputed the company’s response. The data does not contain any personal information, such as the consumer’s name.
Additionally, the database provides a tool, called Socrata, which allows users to create custom visualizations of the data, such as charts and graphs, so that provide maps/pictures of the data by geography, issues, volume, or other criteria. Users can also subscribe to updates to the database. In addition, an application programming interface (API) helps external developers use the data, facilitating the development of innovative new tools.
No one element makes the database innovative; rather the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, many of the elements in the database can be found in other online government databases, including those dealing with consumer complaints. However, by putting together the best components of an online database – public input into the design; tools that make searching the data user friendly; access to and obtaining of the underlying data through multiple means; timely, high quality data; tools to help the user aggregate and display the data in unique ways to help the user make maximum use of its content; and protection of personal privacy – the Consumer Complaint Database is not only innovative, it is a model for other agencies to follow. Given it is a beta, our hope is that the online database will continue to improve.