spendingMontgomery Transforms Citizen Interaction with Finance Data
When it comes to transparency and openness in government, Maryland has long been a leader. While many cities and counties in Maryland have approached this concept of open government, few have done so with the gusto of Montgomery County. Today, the County launches its latest tool designed to connect residents with important data: spendingMontgomery. spendingMontgomery is an app that puts County expenditure data in the hands of residents and other stakeholders, in a way that is easy to consume, understand, and use.
“For a few years, Montgomery County’s Department of Finance has published spending data in compliance with spending disclosure laws and our Open Data Act,” says Victoria Lewis, dataMontgomery Project Manager. “But, there’s been a growing sense that we could innovate the way we publish this data, in order to provide a more detailed and complete picture of County spending,” she continues. Lewis, and others in the technology and finance departments, took it upon themselves to widen that picture. “spendingMontgomery is the outcome of that idea,” Lewis says. “We expanded the envelope because we want to give our residents better access to all the information available to them.”
So, why this app? Why not just publish the data on dataMontgomery, the County’s open data portal? Lewis explains, saying, “Just publishing the data sacrifices its potential. The stories get lost in the columns and rows, especially without context.” Lewis and the folks who worked on this project wanted to structure the data in a way that is easy to understand for a variety of people, including residents, advocacy organizations, and other County stakeholders. “We want people to be able to dig down, access source data, and find answers. The adoption of this app stems from a County-wide mission to be more transparent, which naturally means we should take a guided, hand-in-hand approach to broaden the audience who uses the data,” she says.
The process of implementing spendingMontgomery was similar to how the County launched budgetMontgomery, the open budget application. “We lined up our financial experts that live and breathe spending in Montgomery County, whose skillsets range from the managerial, big picture people, down to those who respond to day-to-day questions about spending from the public,” Lewis explains. The County worked closely with Socrata to design spendingMontgomery. “We had an ongoing conversation to help communicate the kinds of things people ask for when trying to understand spending data. We worked to educate Socrata on our data, to define the types of people who use our data.”
Socrata took the data from these conversations and worked with the County to design mockups of spendingMontgomery, working until the final iteration was completed. Once the data was loaded into the app, Lewis and her department developed user groups in order to collect feedback. “We scheduled sessions with user persona representatives, including residents, advocates, council staff, and others, to demo spendingMontgomery. We gave these users the opportunity to walk through the app, making sure the system was easy to use and answered their questions. In return, they provided feedback on what was missing and what we could improve.” Once this data had been gathered, they updated the app according to the feedback. Montgomery County uploaded the final version of the data that met the schema, and the app was ready to go.
Collaborating with spendingMontgomery
Any open data advocate will tell you that one of the main benefits of open government and transparency is improved collaboration efforts across different governments. “One of the best parts of this process is that, while we got a nice, guided view that meets the needs of Montgomery County, we developed something that could also meet the needs of similar finance departments in neighboring governments,” says Lewis. “We helped develop a data standard that could be reused by others.”
The Goals of spendingMontgomery
Lewis is optimistic about the future of this app. “For us, we want to follow the mission handed down by our County Executive. It is our duty to provide transparency to our residents. We believe spendingMontgomery meets this expectation. It was designed to help us explain complex financial information to the public, limiting misunderstandings about the data, and broadening the audience of who engages on the topic of how we budget and spend County finances.”