States of Transparency: Colorado


The Open Government Directive encouraged states to put valuable government data online. In this series we’re reviewing each state’s efforts in this direction.

This week: Colorado

File this under “Valiant attempts.” When the state of Colorado created the government spending website TOPS (Transparency Online Project) in the fall of 2009, officials dutifully made every piece of data on the site downloadable. Unfortunately, while the idea is laudable, the execution is a little weak. The data is in XML format — a handy format for computer programmers — but isn’t structured well enough to import neatly into the Excel spreadsheets the rest of us plebeians are familiar with.

More importantly, the data is downloadable only in tiny slices. You can’t look at the Department of Corrections and see at a glance how much was spent by each subagency on each fund and account. Instead, you can only download one level of data — a few records’ worth — at a time. What researchers could really use is one big download that contains all the expenditure data for that fiscal year.

According to state controller David McDermott, the site’s current bandwidth might not even be able to support such a large download. As is the case with a lot of state spending websites, no dedicated funding was ever provided for TOPS. The controller’s office had to use what they had at hand: in-house talent on limited time.

As for the data itself, so far TOPS only provides two things: expenditures and revenues. On the expenditure side, a reporter wanting to know how much the state spends on species conservation could discover that the Department of Natural Resources paid Hach Company $255 in fiscal year 2010. A quick google search shows the Hach Company makes water quality testing equipment. A little more clarity would be useful — I’m not sure why there are two species conservation accounts, one called O&M and one called CAP — but they’re on the right track.

Revenues are structured in the same way, and while the source of fines and fees are considered confidential, they are available through an open records request. So for example, the state took in $55,125 from wildlife use permits in fiscal year 2010, but you can’t look up the names of people and organizations that purchased them.

According to the website, more features will be rolled out eventually, although no promises yet as to what the new features will be. And unless the site gets some dedicated funding, reporters might not want to hold their breath.

TIMELINESS: Excellent. The data is updated automatically each night.

DOWNLOADABILITY: Possible, but rather tricky to gather the information in a comprehensive way.

EXPENDITURES: Available at the checkbook level.

REVENUES: Available at the checkbook level.

PAYROLL DATA: Not available.

TAX EXPENDITURES: Not available.