22,000 Visits in 10 Hours — CTHRU Success Stories
CTHRU, the financial transparency site for the Massachusetts Comptroller’s Office, is one of the most visited financial transparency sites in the country. That’s particularly impressive, since just a couple of years ago, the Commonwealth’s former transparency site couldn’t be viewed in some major browsers and also wasn’t mobile-friendly.
At Socrata Connect, Chris Guido, Deputy Comptroller/CIO and Scott Olsen, Director of Department Assistance at the Office of the Comptroller, shared how the Comptroller’s Office was able to overcome ineffectual legacy technology to launch CTHRU, and how the site is helping the Commonwealth uncover outdated government agreements and tackle major projects even as headcount shrinks.
From Ideation to Launch in Mere Months
What does a state comptroller do, precisely? In Massachusetts, the Comptroller’s Office oversees and runs the statewide payroll (for 95,000 employees) and financial systems responsible for $60 billion annually. In February 2016, facing a new public information law set to go in effect the following year, the office did an evaluation of its current transparency application, Open Checkbook.
What they uncovered wasn’t good: Open Checkbook was a legacy application, built by consultants, that ran on 2010 software. Guido describes its technology as being a black box. “It was costly. It had compatibility issues and didn’t run on a lot of browsers, it wasn’t patched very often, you couldn’t see it on your phone, and it had usability issues — it was kind of clunky,” recalls Guido. Making updates and adjustments was deeply challenging, particularly since another agency had ownership over the site.
As a first step, the Comptroller’s Office thought through what it would want in a new transparency application. “We wanted all of our transparency data on one platform. We didn’t want it spread out through PDFs and Excel spreadsheets,” says Guido. Doing this would allow all end users to have the same experience. Also important was to have something flexible and scalable (unlike the previous solution) that would allow the office to respond to growing popularity and changing needs.
After reaching out to Socrata, Guido did a working demo to his fellow deputies and Comptroller Thomas Shack that used 15 million rows of data on a demo site. Thirty seconds into the demo, the whole team was intrigued, says Guido, viewing deeply familiar data displayed in a whole new format. “When they started to see the financial information in a visual format, it immediately engaged them,” says Guido.
“When we presented it to the governor’s office the immediate question was, ‘When are we going to get our other data into this format?’” —Chris Guido, Deputy Comptroller/CIO, Office of the Comptroller of Massachusetts
Four months later, CTHRU was ready to launch, but the Comptroller’s Office delayed the go-live date until September to prepare the press, using the summer months to prepare departments to support the launch and expand the data available on the site. Throughout the Commonwealth’s government, response was positive. “When we presented it to the governor’s office the immediate question was, ‘When are we going to get our other data into this format?’” says Guido.
Goals Achieved — and More Added
With the launch of CTHRU, the Comptroller’s Office was able to sunset Open Checkbook and offer in its place a budget-friendly, cloud-based, single source of transparency truth. CTHRU offers geometric ROI, says Olsen. The media has access to an inner view into the Commonwealth’s financial workings, and staffers receive fewer public information requests, which can be costly and time-consuming to fulfill, since the data is available on the site.
““This is how collaboration works. Our team feels as though the Socrata team is an extension of our team.” —Chris Guido, Deputy Comptroller/CIO, Office of the Comptroller of Massachusetts
And, unlike the relationship with the consulting company that installed Open Checkbook, the relationship with Socrata has continued well past CTHRU’s launch. Posting the names of all new hires at the executive level is important to Governor Baker, so Socrata worked to modify an existing application so the Comptroller’s Office could make that information available. When the Comptroller’s Office noted that having a pension application was critical to their success, Socrata worked together with the Comptroller’s Office to modify the payroll application so it could display that data. “This is how collaboration works,” says Guido. “Our team feels as though the Socrata team is an extension of our team.”
When it comes to the main goal of the Comptroller’s Office — more eyes on the data — there’s no question that CTHRU has been an enormous success. In March 2018, CTHRU hit one million pageviews and just two months later, due to the growing popularity of the site, CTHRU hit the 1.5 million mark.
More Eyes on the Data Benefits All Residents
Journalists make up some of those eyeballs inspecting the data on CTHRU. “When you open the treasure box, people are going to look at it. And, that’s what we want. The media uses [CTHRU] frequently — our friends at the Boston Globe are in there regularly, looking at the data,” says Olsen.
“When you open the treasure box, people are going to look at it. And, that’s what we want.” —Scott Olsen, Director of Department Assistance, Commonwealth of Massachusetts – Office of the Comptroller
CTHRU was how the media discovered that State Police Troop F — the state troopers who work at Logan Airport and are funded by Massport — had overtime pay that could sometimes surpass base wages. That’s because Troop F’s payroll runs through a different system than other public employees, so the data was not available on CTHRU. The story of Troop F’s overtime pay hit the news in a big way. On a Tuesday, in the late afternoon, Comptroller Shack held a meeting with the executives at Massport and said the Troop F payroll data would be live on the site by Friday.
Behind the scenes during those two days, staffers at the Comptroller’s Office combed through the information, putting it in an appropriate format and preparing it to be viewed by the public. On Friday, the data was live, just as Comptroller Shack promised. “[The press] comes to this landing page and immediately the data pops right out of them. That’s what visualizations do — they tell a story, and tell it quick,” says Guido. Just minutes after the site was updated with the data, the Boston Globe had a story up. In the 10 hours following the attention-getting story, CTHRU received 22,000 hits.
“[The press] comes to this landing page and immediately the data pops right out of them. That’s what visualizations do — they tell a story, and tell it quick.” —Chris Guido, Deputy Comptroller/CIO, Office of the Comptroller of Massachusetts
Clearly, there’s a public interest in wages. And, the agreement made in the 1970s to pay Troop F through a separate payroll system no longer makes sense. These are the sort of outmoded policies that a transparency site can help uncover. “Government works differently now. Tom is one of the leaders of that charge to transform government. We’re helping correct some of those mistakes that weren’t mistakes at the time. But, we’re reflecting how government works now,” says Olsen.
CTHRU Helps Massachusetts Embrace Automation
Like many governments, the need to work harder and smarter — but with less headcount — is essential. A tech team of 34 people has shrunk to 25, says Guido. In response, the Comptroller’s Office has embraced automation. “Set it and forget it — that’s what we want from our transparency site,” says Guido. “We work upfront very hard and we try to make sure that all of our information is automated,” he says. Automation removes dependencies, so that one person’s vacation doesn’t bring daily updates on the site to a halt.
“Set it and forget it — that’s what we want from our transparency site.” —Chris Guido, Deputy Comptroller/CIO, Office of the Comptroller of Massachusetts
Business rules are important when it comes to publishing data that’s on view to the public. To that end, the Comptroller’s Office has set up several validation rules. For instance, if someone’s pay is over $150,000, the automation halts so the salary can be verified. “If you run a transparency site and everyone knows this, as soon as you let the data out, it’s out there — people are consuming it, downloading it, so we want to make sure the data is correct,” says Guido.
Watch Guido and Olsen’s full presentation at Socrata Connect.