Blog article: Budgetpedia: Humanizing City Budgets

Budgetpedia: Humanizing City Budgets

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Our debut community showcase tells the story of a project that is regarded as a pioneer in Toronto’s Civic Tech space, and a powerful example of how Open Data empowers citizens to participate in government decision-making; Budgetpedia. For those of you who are wondering, what in the world is civic tech? Here’s my take on what it means: Civic tech is an emerging group of both citizens (technologists, designers, educators, students, researchers, entrepreneurs) and government workers who together explore ways that technology can help enhance and improve how we understand and interact with one another. The interactions which form the basis of a relationship between government and citizens; access to public services, public participation in government decision-making, and public perception on government transparency, are all beneficiaries of this collaborative effort. Pretty inspiring, right? What’s even more incredible is that this isn’t a uniquely Toronto movement, as there are more and more groups that share the same purpose and are self-convening across the globe; Ottawa, Edmonton, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Chicago, New York City, Taiwan, Italy, France, Belgium, Africa…and it goes on. The Toronto chapter—CivicTech TO—which holds weekly Tuesday evening ‘hacknights’ at rotating venues across the City—held their very first meeting in 2015, Budgetpedia being one of the first projects pitched to the group. Henrik Benchmann attended the first CivicTech TO hacknight with an idea: to help better explain Toronto’s budget. As a former software developer who has worked for various multi-national companies, much of his work involved operations, marketing, and database driven applications that sat beside their accounting systems. Henrik would often take complex datasets and present them in ways that made sense to management, something he says he rather enjoys doing. I’d say he’s rather exceptional at it too. In the beginning, Henrik focused his efforts on helping simplify the presentation of the City’s budget. He did this focusing on the language used to classify budget allocations. “City Centered Services A and B doesn’t explain anything, it’s very inward looking, arbitrary, and it bugged me. So I recombined them in ways that made sense,” Henrik explains. Through several iterations, Henrik regrouped the City’s Divisions and Agencies into categories he feels the general public can better interpret and recognize with ease. Here’s an example of the City’s taxonomy used to group Divisions and Agencies when presenting both Operating and Capital budgets, taken directly from the City’s website:

Citizen Centred Services “A”

  • Affordable Housing Office
  • 311 Toronto
  • Children’s Services
  • Court Services
  • Economic Development and Culture
  • Long-Term Care Homes & Services
  • Parks, Forestry & Recreation
  • Social Development, Finance and Administraiton
  • Shelter, Support & Housing Administration
  • Toronto Employment & Social Services
  • Toronto Paramedic Services

Citizen Centred Services “B”

  • City Planning
  • Engineering and Construction Services
  • Fire Services
  • Municipal Licensing & Standards
  • Policy, Planning, Finance and Administration
  • Solid Waste Management Services
  • Toronto Building
  • Transportation Services
  • Toronto Water
  • Waterfront Revitalization Initiative
Here’s how these same groupings are presented through Budgetpedia:

General Services (Getting through the day), about $4.9B

  • Utilities (2,886 staff for waste/water)
    • Waste
    • Water
    • Electricity (owned)
  • Moving around (13,686 staff)
    • Roads
    • Parking
    • Transit/Wheeltrans
  • Public Commons (7,520 staff)
    • Parks
    • Libraries
    • Attractions
    • Conservation

Citizen support services (getting help), about $4.6B

  • Emergency Services (12,761 staff)
    • Police
    • Fire
    • Paramedics
  • Wellbeing – Health & Education (5,160 staff)
    • Public Health
    • Long Term Care
    • Children’s Services
  • Income & Housing (2,770 staff)
    • Housing Support
    • Income Support
Using these groupings as a framework, Henrik has spent the past two and a half years working with approximately 100 volunteers to create interactive, user-friendly visualizations of the City’s annual budget; a feature on called the Budget Explorer. They did this by analyzing and synthesizing the City’s open datasets (operating & capital), budget analyst notes, and contextual process-related information gathered through FOIs. Behind the clean and functional design of the graphs and drill-down charts, Henrik shares that there are ways that we can improve the overall quality of the City’s budget data. After having spent two and a half years working closely with the data available, Henrik feels that processes used to assemble, collect and transfer budget data could benefit from greater automation. Through the use of automation, he explains, this can help shorten time to release data, minimize the margin for potential errors and produce more granular, localized data. The good news is, we’re heading in the right direction. With support from 42 public advisory group members–including Henrik– who share the same desire to help mature the City’s Open Data program, we’ve co-developed an Open Data Master Plan and Roadmap with the community. The plan is designed to address these kinds of opportunities over the next four years; identifying ways to help increase the quantity and quality of datasets through solutions like automation. More details on the topic of modernization can be found in the Foundations section of the Plan. Today, Budgetpedia’s mandate has evolved, shifting from simplifying the City’s budget to inspiring informed action on budget decision-making. Over the past year, the number of unique visitors accessing Budgetpedia has increased by 35%, attracting approximately 120 users monthly. What’s even more impressive is that the total number of visits received has increased by 92%, while its bounce rate has decreased by 33%. This tells us that not only is the appetite for budget information growing, but more users are engaging with the data presented through Budgetpedia. Henrik, along with 8 core members who are actively contributing to Budgetpedia, have undertaken a comprehensive review of the site’s current user experience architecture. Through their research, the team is identifying ways the site can be enhanced to help users understand how the City budget relates to the issues they care about, and feel empowered to get involved or share their opinions. To achieve this, Henrik explains, “We’ve gone from just data to data stories.” According to Henrik, Budgetpedia’s primary audience are ideally journalists, bloggers, City Councillors and staff. The general public is another important audience. These are people who have some interest to learn about the City they live in, and happen to discover Budgetpedia through a google search. Through a series of interviews held at CivicTechTO, participants were asked to complete a series wayfinding exercises to help the team understand how members of these two audiences differ in behaviours and needs. The findings of this exercise were used to inform the development of a prototype for the next version of Budgetpedia. Rafi Chaudhury–the web designer behind the new prototype–designed a visually engaging site that includes context-rich interactive data stories on City finances, catering to all levels of knowledge. Stories range from introductory backgrounders that show and tell how concepts like deficits and surpluses are calculated and their implications, to more in depth analyses of program-specific budget data. At the heart of each narrative is this humanizing component that allows users to quickly develop a connection with the numbers presented. “We find that motivates people and gets them to participate more,” Rafi explains. In the future, Budgetpedia plans to become incorporated as a non-profit under “Open Budgets Canada,” with an established board of members who will help mobilize the project’s priorities with greater reach. Discussions are currently underway to create an API (Application Programming Interface) that will allow 3rd parties to tap into all the data presented through the site, so they can be reused to create applications and visualisations of their own. The project team also plans to take an environmental scan of budgets in the GTA, allow for further analysis of Toronto in comparison to neighbouring jurisdictions. The new site is slated for release in the upcoming spring. To get involved with Budgetpedia, you can expect to find the project team at Civictech TO’s weekly hacknights; two and a half years later and going strong.