Boston Makes Budget Transparency a Top Priority
The City of Boston had been publishing their budget in multi-volume PDFs for years. While there’s a wealth of information contained in these volumes, it can be difficult for the public to understand where the City is allocating resources and for what purposes. In 2014, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh1 issued an executive order to improve the City’s open data efforts. Three months later, the City released a web-based interactive application – Socrata’s Open Budget -to publish both their operating and capital budgets. Open Budget has improved the City’s financial transparency and given everyone – city employees, reporters and researchers, and the public – easy access to the City budget.
Open Budget gave Boston “a great user friendly interactive site. You can search by department or funding source, understand priorities and even see where capital projects are being funded,” says Christopher Dwelley, Boston's Citywide Performance Manager and the lead on Boston’s financial transparency initiatives. Dwelley, who’s based in the City’s CFO office, is deeply involved with the City’s financial data, both on a big picture level and for day-to-day operations.
“Socrata’s technology helped us paint a clearer picture of how the city is allocating funds and what those funds are spent on. It also supports our goals of sharing data and helping people – not just government employees, but citizens, too -- understand what that data means.”
A single access point for government and the public
Open Budget allows the City to publish to single portal that anyone can access. Because the budget data is public and easy to navigate, more audiences – citizens, reporters, academia – are able to review the exact same datasets that the government uses.
The City had a fairly painless migration from our original datasets to the Open Budget data schema. “We were lucky, our data was mostly well-formed,” said Dwelley “We had a few items that needed customization, but Socrata handled that for us.”
Neighborhood level details on city expenditures
Dwelley appreciates the way Open Budget allows users to see information that matters to them. For example, the app displays capital expenditures on an interactive map. Users can zoom in to their neighborhood to see what projects have been funded, where that funding came from, and what the project status is.
The inverse works as well. If a user wants to see where education funds are allocated, they first select Education from Current Capital Budget. The Projects Map allows them to see if that money is spent in their community.
Beyond the budget
The City had started their open data initiative with other datasets: payroll information, expenditures by department, and, their most requested dataset, vendor data. These datasets were also published to a public portal using Socrata’s financial transparency apps.
As with budget data, expenditure data is interactive. Users can look up exactly how much money has been spent in a specific city department and compare that data with previous years’ expenditures. Users can also see the specific vendors who received contracts for each department and how much they earned.
Boston updates their checkbook data monthly. The update process includes spot checks to ensure that no sensitive information is released. “The budget data has always been public,” says Dwelley, “but as we release new expenditure data each month, we watch to make sure nothing secure is slipping through.” The City learns from spot checks and conferring with other cities implementing open data programs. “We look for account numbers, social security numbers, and information that is protected,” says Dwelley.
Public data invites public engagement
There have been immediate internal benefits from the City’s open data program. Fewer requests for information free up staff time and consistent reporting across departments helps with information sharing. But Boston is also excited about what citizens can do with the data now that it’s so easy for them to access and understand.
Code for Boston hosts a weekly hack night that encourages “developers, designers, urban planners, and data geeks” to use technology and publicly available data to solve community problems. The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics taps the data to help understand problems as diverse as school transportation and improving the quality of Boston’s roads.
“We don’t have all the answers,” says Dwelley, “but Socrata’s apps make it easy for our citizens to engage with city information. That makes it possible for our citizens to help us find better solutions and for us to make better government.”