Monday, February 20, 2012

Transparency and Usability

There are more government databases becoming available to the public. This improved transparency is good. The usability of that data is improving as well. This is also good.

After the jump, an example from Richardson, and a wish for more.

The example from Richardson is the city's online check register. This is a fulfillment of a commitment to more transparent government made by the last two city councils. My compliments to the city council and city staff who made this possible.

The best feature (for a wonk) is the "Export All to Excel" button at the top of the page. This lets interested citizens download the data to their own computers to slice and dice the data to their heart's content (even if some of the analysis is of debatable value).

This brings me to my wish. There are two times a year when the City of Richardson releases tons of financial information to citizens. The first is in summer, when the annual budget is decided upon by the council and published. The second is in winter, when the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) is published. The 2011 CAFR is due to be released today for review at today's city council meeting.

Making CAFR data available online is an improvement in transparency, but in the past I've voiced a few complaints about the lack of usability of data released by the city. Online PDF files are not a whole lot better than printed hard copies of the reports, especially if the PDF copy is made by physically scanning in a printed copy of the report.

My wish? Please, City of Richardson, publish this year's CAFR in spreadsheet format as well, like the online check register offers that alternative. Doing so would indicate that the city's interest in continuous improvement in transparency is alive and well. How about it?

By the way, if you want to know what to look for in this year's CAFR, a few key items in last year's CAFR were discussed in The Wheel late last summer. Those will be the details I will turn to first in this year's edition.


Nathan Morgan said...

You are right about the usability factor, Mark. Whoever thought up the method for publishing the information fell short on enabling data mining. It is virtually impossible to do an electronic search and discover patterns and trends in the underlying data. What good is the raw data if it is difficult to analyse? Perhaps that was by design. I thought Richardson was suppose to be the technology capital of the universe.

In spite of the obstacles to mining, there have still been some interesting discoveries. It is now possible to see some glaring offences perpetrated by the hired help.

I am continually amazed at how much public resources are spent on feeding, imbibing and entertaining the public servants. It is astonishing how much is spent feathering their nest.

Sassy Texan said...

Non-correlated information is just data

Sassy Texan said...

CAFR is out. Seems they over spent again this year. Just a bit more than that little ol' $2mm dollars they were talking about in August! Try $18mm more! Reduction in net assets of $12.9mm and over $7mm in unrestricted assets. That unallocated reserve fund isn't what it used to be. Isn't everyone so glad the windfalls in Ad Valorem of the last few years went to salaries!

Nathan Morgan said...

Are you saying the rats left a sinking ship? Imagine my surprise! Where will they find the next pot of gold? Another fee in lieu of raising taxes? Another hand out from a federal or state grant application for some superfluous unfunded project? Those resources are drying up. Richardson can't balance the budget by hiding unfunded mandates any easier than Austin or Washington. Serious cuts in spending is the only prudent way to get back to fiscal responsibility...unless you are willing to take more out of your own pocket so that public servants can continue to feather their nest and load the trough of corporate welfare.

Sassy Texan said...

Do you hear all the crickets??? Nary a peep out of anyone on the topic of budget abuses. What's up with that?