OpenGov Voices: Transparency with Arlington Visual Budget

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Alan Jones Roger Zhu

This OpenGov Voices guest post was written by Alan H. Jones and Roger Zhu. Alan and Roger worked on a financial data visualization project for the town of Arlington, MA. Alan is a Vice-Chairman of Arlington’s Finance Committee in Arlington, MA and has spent the last 12 years helping organizations and individuals make effective use of information technology. You can read more of his work here. Roger is an improvisational engineer, industrial designer and interaction designer. He is a designer with Involution Studios.

See (and interact with) your town’s budget: exploring the next generation of accessibility in financial information.

Government budgets can be tough to understand, but now the town of Arlington, Massachusetts is providing the next generation of accessibility in financial information that allows citizens to see, engage and discuss.

See:

The Arlington Visual Budget is an interactive web-based application that holds all the town’s financial budget information from 2008 to 2018. The data was broken down into three sections: revenues, expense and funds. In each section, you can drill down to see each government department’s total spending including percentage of totals compared to last year and what that data means.

On the right side of the data is a treemap (below) with interactive color populated by data in real time. The map below illustrates the impact of a particular revenue or expenditure compared to the whole budget and how that budget has changed over time.

All the data comes directly from Arlington town’s financial office where we used current technology to build a pipeline that converts files created in Microsoft Excel to JSON — a lightweight data-interchange format used for computation within the site.

Engage:

Early in the development process, the design was informed by experienced Arlington town staff and volunteers who provided preliminary data sets and insight into what the public was likely to need. One of the first surprises we learned was that although the dollar amount of individual line items might vary by orders of magnitude, the public is often as interested in the details of the small budgets as they are in the large ones. Because of this, we had to abandon the use of simple pie or bar charts, and instead used the interactive treemap. This shows relative proportions at a glance, but also allows viewers to drill down into the details.

We also decided to include tables of data to complement the graphs and created a glossary to make sure that some terms that are not commonly used were clearly explained.

With guidance from the town, we included fund assets along with revenues and expenses. Funds that can accumulate and pass revenues from year to year are an important part of the budget. In the case of Arlington, the Override Stabilization Fund in particular plays a key role in the successful long-term financial planning process.

The second phase of review was a series of usability trials with both the Arlington town financial experts and a representative sample of informed citizens. Every trial led to improvements in both the structure and content of the presentation. We corrected confusing terms and graphics, and rearranged or highlighted some design elements to provide a better way of finding these elements by first-time visitors. We also paid special attention to make sure that the site could easily answer “frequently asked questions.”

Finally, the site was soft-launched on Arlington’s Town Day, with presentations to many interested citizens and local officials. It was very favorably received. A few state officials including Senator Ken Donnelly commented: “the state needs this.” In fact, it has become apparent that any entity with budget authority – including private business – would find value in this tool. We also recorded many ideas for “Rev 2.0” (the follow-up tool to the Arlington Visual Budget), such as comparisons of actual, to projections, budgets, “what-if” scenarios, goal seeking and more historical data.

Discuss:

We expect to use the Arlington Visual Budget (AVB) as a presentation tool during the next budget cycle, which begins in earnest in early spring, 2014. All key players, such as the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Finance Committee and Capital Planning Committee, will be encouraged to use the AVB to help themselves and the public better understand all parts of the budget, how they fit together for the next year and the subsequent five years. Since Arlington’s representative town meeting has the final approval authority on the town’s budget, the Arlington Visual Budget can then be used to clarify and/or support recommendations from the town meeting.

Finally, in order to provide the expected level of services, the town of Arlington must periodically hold a referendum vote to increase property taxes beyond the statutory 2.5% limit. Therefore, the AVB tool can play a key role in demonstrating the need, or the consequences of failing to approve a tax increase.

Forward:

The next steps are to continuously improve both the quantity and quality of the data,  providing more details, and better online explanations of sources and uses, and terminology. Rev 2.0 will include the additional features described above. Finally, the town is challenged to organize its financial data into a single accessible database with an interface which will allow AVB to pull data directly from the town’s systems, and avoid the need to re-enter all the numbers into spreadsheets.

See more information here to discover the making of Arlington Visual Budget by Involution Studios. You can also learn more about the project here. Don’t forget to check out the github documentation of the project!

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com.

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