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Public Sector Innovations
Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data Browser
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
When the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau decided to develop a browser tool that would make the massive Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) datasets more accessible to the public, CFPB didn’t design it from top to bottom and release it with a big splash. Instead, the agency focused on using a “flexible architecture” that would allow it to solicit user feedback between iterations, said Eric Spry, the bureau’s program manager for HMDA operations.
This method helped Spry’s team identify which features were in the highest demand. When the majority of users made it clear they were only interested in data from their immediate communities, the HMDA browsers were modified to filter data to a specific state, county or lender.
people’s attention and encourage action. DOR discovered that taxpayers are more likely to pay overdue taxes if they receive letters that are clear, concise and eye-catching.
It’s all about how people make decisions, said Laura Leets, a principal social scientist at MITRE who worked on the project. If a message is clear, people are able to make better
choices. “Specifically, we simplified the text using plain language to help people understand their tax obligations,” she said. “We also simplified the format so people could quickly glance at the letter and comprehend what they owed, their payment options and the consequences if they didn’t respond.”
The team tested the theory by comparing how taxpayers responded
to the nudge notices versus traditional reminders. Redesigned notices won by a long shot, said Christopher Pressley,
a fiscal analyst at DOR and the project’s leader. Not only did recipients respond at a greater rate (50% to100% higher), taxpayers who received the redesigned notices paid down 38% to 69% more of their debt on average.
Although the pandemic has halted many revenue collection processes, the team is confident that once everything is back up and running, success rates will continue. Plus, it is a cost-effective way to encourage
what have turned out to be excellent results, said Kevin Milligan, special advisor to the deputy secretary for taxation at DOR. “How expensive are notices? It’s about the cheapest thing we can do.”
The next challenge was making the data accessible to people with various levels of research skills. After some digging, Spry’s team found that spreadsheets were popular with most users, so developers made sure the data could be downloaded that way. “This gives the user just
the records they want in a more
manageable format and without
specialized software that very large
datasets require,” Spry said.
Deciding which features to
exclude proved just as important
because the goal was to keep the
tool simple and accessible. With
the HMDA data browser pulling
from a database of over 35 million records and growing, overdoing the options was 3 a definite risk.
In addition, the quantity of data threatened the team’s ability to ensure that the system moved quickly for users. To solve the problem, developers decided not to allow direct database inquiries. Instead, they came up with a caching methodology that considers most of the possible combinations of user queries and pre- generates those files.
“Cloud resources allow us enough scale to process a massive number of cached files ahead of each data release,” Spry said. “But we did find that over- optimizing has its own set of problems, and finding that right balance is the key.”
Crowdsourcing and transparency will likely continue to be themes as the system evolves, which fits the spirit of HMDA. “The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act since 1975 has always been about public transparency of dwelling secured lending,” Spry said. “Our work at the CFPB continues that tradition of how we provide access to this historic public resource and how data users’ needs are changing as well.”
38 November/December 2020 FCW.COM
Select a Filter
Selection “Action Taken” and “Loan Purpose”
Check boxes for the loans of interest.
Click “View Summary Table”

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