“Budget” is one of the dullest words in English, but a new portal launched by Boston last month is giving the dusty concept new life on screen by redrawing the lines between media and government while leading a national trend toward increasingly accessible data.
On April 24, city Budget Director Katie Hammer wrote a Medium blog post explaining how the city converted its three-volume, 860-page budget into a user-friendly website. Beyond freeing Mayor Martin Walsh’s 2017 budget data from the lonely confines of a giant PDF, the heavy use of narrative places the portal among the most transparent and accessible stores of government data available today.
Plenty of government agencies upload their budgets to data portals, and in years past, Boston itself has pulled its executive summary onto a city webpage for better accessibility. But it wasn’t until this year that the city put the effort into bringing its financial decisions into an organized and understandable context for the non-accountant.
Through the use of charts, graphs, maps and written narrative, the city answers these questions and many others:
- What does the police department’s 2.6 percent budget increase mean?
- Why does education comprise 40 percent of this year’s budget?
- And where do the dozens of capital improvement projects launched under Imagine Boston 2030 fit into this year’s $3.14 billion outlay?
City Chief Information Officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge explained that the city can’t miss opportunities like these to tell stories and connect with people in new ways.
“There’s like five people in the city of Boston who are going to sit down with the entirety of the budget book and read through it and make sense of it, but what’s in that book has so much impact on people’s lives every day,” Franklin-Hodge said.
The new budget was made possible in part through a partnership between Franklin-Hodge’s Department of Innovation and Technology and Hammer’s budget office. The two worked together to develop APIs that make it relatively easy to pull government data and pop it up on a website.
“The idea with those APIs was to allow us to do this iteration, but also to make it really easy for us to think about new ways that data can be represented and perhaps the way that data can be surfaced into other aspects of the site that are not specifically about the budget,” Franklin-Hodge said. “But if you’re reading about the schools or you’re reading about our transportation investments, you can see how everything ties back to the budget that funds it.”
The city thinks it has a great story to tell with its budget, Hammer said, but tacking this project onto an already tough deadline was “very difficult.”
“This is really how most budget offices are. They have specific deadlines to get the budget out and I think one challenge of a budget office doing something new is that we now have something else we’re working on at the same time we’re trying to finish the budget,” Hammer said.
It might have helped to start a little earlier, she said, maybe by using budget data from last year in a mock launch at a lower-stakes time.
Chief Digital Officer Lauren Lockwood agreed, but said that kind of approach requires a level of discipline that most teams probably don’t have. The important thing, she said, is that they now have the technology to do this easily next time.
“We shared a lot this year, but the really important thing that you don’t necessarily see is that we invested in building the pipes,” Lockwood said. “What I’m most excited about is what we’re able to do in the future because that foundation has been laid.”
With the “pipes” in place, the city can be more precise and thoughtful about how to get budget data to public-facing web assets. Future iterations of this data may include a personalized portal that only includes the geographic or topic-specific data that a given citizen cares about. These are the kinds of data-fueled portals that government leaders have been talking about for years, but are scarcely found in reality.
A new open data portal launched by Chicago in April and the increased use of narrative map data tools like Esri’s Story Maps point to a trend by government to help with a brand of analysis and storytelling that has traditionally been carried by journalists, academics, or community activists.
“We want to expose more of this information because it helps people understand how this process happens and why it happens,” Lockwood said. “This isn’t random. All these numbers are extremely well-considered and thought-through by a lot of people and so much time is spent poring over them and making decisions that it’s a waste not to expose that story to the people we’re serving.”