New tool helps citizens better understand Washington state budget

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The Economic Opportunity Institute, a non-profit public policy center, has launched a data visualization tool that provides citizens with a clearer picture on budget information for the state of Washington.

The site, created by Chicago-based DataMade, lets users manipulate state budget data dating back to 2002. Visitors can see trends and themes in state spending in areas like education, transportation and government operations, and other state government operations.

“Our big hope is to become a resource for the state’s legislative staff, for journalists, for students, to have information on the state budget whenever they need it,” EOI Executive Director Aaron Keating told StateScoop.

Keating said one of the keys of the site is that it shows both changes in real and nominal dollars, so users can see changes not only in how much is spent but how that relates to inflation and other economic trends.

That is important in looking at areas like higher education. Washington has drastically cut it’s spending when it comes to higher education, with institutions like the University of Washington seeing its appropriations cut nearly in half.

“It’s one thing to see changes like that on a spreadsheet, but it really hits home more when put in a visual format,” said Keating.

Keating said EOI plans to update the site with new features, such as showing the difference in proposed state budgets during the budget cycle or allowing for different ways for users to compare budget data.

“The goal of this project was really to show how trends and priorities change over time,” said Derek Eder, the co-founder of DataMade. “There’s a story there of how policy has changed funding levels and altering the services and programs available to the state’s residents.”

Eder said the EOI’s tool plays off Look at Cook, a site he and fellow developer Nick Rougeux made in 2011 that visualized spending in Cook County, Ill. That site was developed as open source, so others could take the code and recreate using their own data.

For those without the knowledge or desire to do so, Eder started his company to help them along with similar projects.

That was the case for the Washington State project. Eder said EOI did the legwork, getting the data it wanted to showcase from the state government while Eder created the visualization that mirrored what he did with Cook County.

“While the budget numbers are different in comparing a state and a county, the projects were very similar in many ways,” Eder said. “In each case it was making data available down to specific line items that was than usable in a visualization.”

As with the Cook County project, the Washington visualization was open source as well for other organizations to use. Eder said he’s gotten other interest from other public, private and non-profit groups as well to do other visualizations in the future.

“I feel like I am doing a civic duty in building these tools,” Eder said, “but also creating a way to make a living. I think the key is that all of these are built using open source, which can be a tremendous way for governments to procure different technologies at a reasonable cost.”

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Data Analytics, Derek Eder, Economic Opportunity Institute, Nick Rougeux, Open Data, Open Government, Open Source, Software, State & Local News, States, Tech News, Washington
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