SEC Launches Open-Source Interactive Data Site

XBRL is taking hold as the universal language for the exchange of business information.

The Securities and Exchange Commission launched an open-source interactive Web site Feb. 15 that allows users to generate customized data from SEC financial reports.

With an XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) viewer, the site can give investors nearly real-time access to the complete and actual data companies report to the SEC.

The XBRL format allows public companies and mutual funds to submit information in a standardized, tagged format for analysis and comparisons. The software eliminates tasks such as copying and pasting rows of revenues and expenses into a spreadsheet.

Dubbed Financial Explorer by the SEC, the tool generates financial ratios, graphs and charts. Information including earnings, expenses, cash flows, assets and liabilities can be analyzed and compared across competing public companies.

"XBRL is fast becoming the universal language for the exchange of business information and it is the future of financial reporting," SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said in a statement. "With Financial Explorer or another XBRL viewer, investors will be able to quickly make sense of financial statements."

The SEC said most free Internet tools use aggregated data and include disclaimers warning investors not to rely on the information for investment decisions. David Blaszkowsky, director of the SEC's Office of Interactive Disclosure, said Financial Explorer is a "first-hand glimpse of the future of financial analysis, especially for the retail investor."

As interactive data becomes more commonplace, the SEC said, developers will generate creative Web-based applications that give insights about financial results.

"In the near future, potentially millions of people will be able to analyze and compare financial statements and make better-informed investment decisions," Cox said. "That's a big benefit to ordinary investors."

Since leaving Congress in 2005 to head the agency, Cox has pushed both the SEC and companies to adopt XBRL. The SEC currently has a voluntary program for tagging financial documents with XBRL. Microsoft, General Electric and United Technologies are already participating in the program.

A member of the XML family, XBRL is a machine-readable language for business and financial data. Instead of treating financial information as a block of text-as on a standard Internet page or a printed document-it provides an identifying tag for each individual item of data.