The following is a guide to best practices for municipal governments to publish their budgeting/spending data to citizens. These practices should be seen as the basic foundations for government-led Gov 2.0 efforts for civic improvement and not a comprehensive guide to all information and communication technology (ICT) facilitated approaches. This article focuses on transparency efforts, so does not include social media engagement practices. Since many governments have limited resources to devote to Gov 2.0 efforts, this is a list of low intensity methods for jump starting civic innovation.
These methods fall under the category of low intensity government led practices. They are government led as opposed to citizen led because the government does or funds the majority of the work, while citizen-led efforts may include government work they mostly rely on outside resources. New York’s new budgeting initiative is a government led project because the city is funding the project and supplying all of the data, while projects like adopt-a-hydrant are primarily powered by citizen volunteers who pledge to take care of their neighborhood fire hydrant.
Read here for a look at citizen-led initiatives.
The Sunlight Foundation has done amazing work on highlighting the key practices that state and federal governments should undertake for budgeting/spending data transparency and many of these methods can be applied to municipal spending:
- Unify information in an easy to access site so that citizens do not have to hunt for every department’s’ budget data.
- Release accurate information on contracts and grants so citizens can provide oversight.
- Release complete datasets with as much of the recorded information as possible. Governments only usually release a small portion of their recorded data but even if the datasets seems irrelevant they should be released. A recent interview with Carole Post, New York City’s chief information officer, showed that sometimes what the government thinks is obscure can actually be useful to citizens. She pointed to a census of “street tree demographics” that turned into an app called Trees Near You, “a mobile tool that allows urban dwellers to click on a nearby tree and pull up details on its kind and size, along with the Wikipedia entry on the particular type of tree.” Post says, “by making the data open and available across the board, we, the government, can get out of the business of trying to prioritize what the public might want to see, in what form they want to see it, and what they want to do with it.”
- Datasets should be primary source materials and include information on how it was collected.
- Datasets should be released in a timely fashion and real time information should be provided whenever possible.
- Data should be released in machine readable formats and available to download all at once or in “bulk,” as in all of the information in a database.
- APIs or application programming interfaces are not really necessary. There is debate on this subject even among the Sunlight Foundation but the general idea is that bulk data does not require as much of a load on infrastructure as APIs and APIs tend to limit developers to the “agency’s worldview of their data.” There’s a couple of points from Sunlight’s Eric Mill that should be included in full: “There’s no way to predict ahead of time the right data format and structure for every client who’s interested in your data. Expect clients to need to transform your data for their own requirements, and for that transformation to require clients to first obtain all of your data. Providing bulk access is several orders of magnitude less work on the part of the provider than building and maintaining an API. An API is a system you need to design, create, keep running, attend to, and worry about. Bulk data access is uploading some files, forgetting about it, and letting HTTP do the work. Ongoing automated bulk access may require some integration into existing workflows behind the scenes, but it’s going to be a lot less work than building a new system.”
- Ensure that data is accessible to any person and at anytime, so there are no registration or membership requirements. Also make sure there are no “walled gardens,” as in data that can only be accessed through select applications.
- Keep the data open and free to use. Open source means that other governments and organizations can benefit from the release of data and make the universe of available toolsets stronger. The civic commons marketplace is a great site that allows governments and civic technology organizations to share innovations and benefit from each other’s work.
- Archive data and note when changes have been made. Often government data is provided in an unarchived stream and changes are not indicated. Permanence or the ability to find information over time is critical for monitoring long term spending.
Another good resource for technical guidelines can be found here.
These efforts are important because they provide the foundation for concerned citizens, civic technology organizations, and others to use government data for civic improvement. These are low impact methods that do not require a lot of resources to implement but can still reap huge benefits. Civic technology groups like OpenPlans, Code for America, and Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics have built numerous apps on government data that are improving communities across America.