Imperfect but important: A review of John Liu’s open-budget website

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Yesterday, City Comptroller John Liu rolled out an updated version of a website that allows the public to track city spending: Checkbook NYC 2.0.

Nick Judd at Tech President said the site sets a new and important precedent, because basically once this information becomes public, there will be no going back.

But the comptroller's site, as Judd also noted, isn't comprehensive.

Citing as an example the comptroller's spending on the site itself, he writes:

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"Last year, Deputy Comptroller for Public Affairs Ari Hoffnung told me it was expected to cost $1.5 million. The price tag at launch will be about $2.1 million, and it may cost $3 million by the time the project is complete. But none of this shows up in Checkbook NYC 2.0 (a name which in fact makes it sound a little like Yesterday's Project of Tomorrow) at the level of this project because it is a subcontract, and the application currently does not list subcontracts."

My initial reaction, after fooling around a bit with the site, is that it's a good start. 

Some of the user-generatable data-visualization stuff is great.

 

The site also seems to strike a reasonable balance on personal privacy, providing useful information about the cost of public employees without attaching the numbers to specific names.

But of course the data won't be worth a whole lot to you if you don't know what you're looking at. It's not the purpose of a site like this to provide context, really; it's a tool. 

It could make things easier, though, by categorizing the data, and providing more ways to search for it.

For example, if you wanted to know how much money went to a particular company, like my alma mater, The Queens TribuneHere you go. Or the New York Post? Boom.

Same if you were curious about just how much coffee is being consumed, or at least bought, by  the mayor's office.

It's all there. But if you wanted to know how much public money is being spent on media advertising, or expensed on food, entertainment, taxis and lodging, it takes some decoding and calculating.

Meanwhile, the Cuomo administration has just unveiled its own budget-transparency site, called "Open Budget."

The site earned high praise from Robert Freeman, the executive director of the State Committee on Open Government who called it "policy wonk heaven." I'll write about that after I've had time to play around with it a little more.

If you've got feedback on Cuomo's or Liu's sites, I'd love to hear it: azi[at]capitalnewyork.com, @azipaybarah.

UPDATE: John Keahny, a transparency advocate who was quoted in Liu's press release, emails to say I'm missing a couple of key points about the site:

Checkbook 2.0 is the public front end of the city's $315 million Financial Management System --- that's its strength and weakness. Prior to Checkbook 2.0 we --- the public, and city council --- had little idea of what was being reported into FMS, and what agencies like the Mayors Office of Contracts, Dept of Finance and OMB know and don't know.

Now we do, and now we can start calling for more informative contract summaries, complete reporting from the pension funds (which is apparently coming,) and getting quasi-public agencies like Health and Hospitals into FMS.

Checkbook NYC 2.0 fosters a virtuous cycle of more and more finance data being disclosed: some data is disclosed > the public -- probably journalists --- finds errors and omissions and calls for the data to be improved > the city improves the data. This is the positive feedback loop we always see with open data. Put another way, most reporters didn't even know about FMS before Checkbook 2.0, and know they'll find dozens of things that FMS needs to do better, and hopefully write about them.

Additionally, another key point missed --- the data on Checkbook is updated every 24 hours. Compare that to FOIL which can take days, weeks, months or never. That timeliness means that site users will be able to immediately see new data, and also to ask why some data hasn't been reported in six months or a year.

The big question is whether the comptroller's office and Dept of Finance are able and willing to respond to public feedback and improve FMS. The groups in the NYC Transparency Working Group, which I co-chair with Gene Russianoff, intend to push hard to get the greatest public benefit from this new tool.