Tuesday, August 30, 2011

All PDFs Are Not Created Equal

The City of Richardson has been recognized for transparency and rightly so. But transparency is not like pregnancy. You can't be a little bit pregnant. You're either pregnant or you're not. With transparency, there's room for all sorts of in-between states. That's where Richardson is right now. That's OK as long as we're getting better. You like to think that we're living in Drew Barrymore's world where she can say, "I'm not only in the best place I've ever been, but it keeps getting better and better." We're not quite there.

After the jump, an irritating inconsistency in Richardson's transparency from year to year.

It's budget-setting time in Richardson. That finds me poring over the proposed 2011-2012 budget and past years' budgets. But the city doesn't make that easy. Sure, the budget documents for the last four years are online -- as PDF files.

PDF is great for reading, but not so great for doing what-if analyses. It would greatly help the public's ability to analyze these financial statements if they were also available in spreadsheet form. The PDFs must be generated from some database or spreadsheet, so is it asking too much that a spreadsheet with the data also be put online? I don't think so.

But what's worse is that the PDF files don't all contain the text of the documents; some are scanned images of that text. Open the 2008-2009 budget document and do a search on say, "Fund." You get dozens of hits. Good. Same for the 2009-2010 budget. But try the same thing on the 2010-2011 budget. You get zero hits. Bad. This document is useless for any analysis requiring searching the document. The proposed 2011-2012 budget is something else again. You can search text in it, but zoom in on those pages and they look like scanned images. Look closely on the left side of the pages and you can see three punch holes. Maybe these pages were scanned, then put through an optical character recognition (OCR) program.

Come on, Richardson. Quit printing and scanning. Commit to at least preserving the text of the documents you put online as PDF files. Better yet, put spreadsheets online for financial data.

The budget documents cited here can be found here.