Commentary

10/02/2012  by Alexandra Bjerg

City of Palo Alto takes another major step toward transparency


Palo Alto continues to remove the cloud cover from their city processes (photo: George M. Groutas/Flickr)

Have you ever blown out a tire due to an unfixed pothole and angrily wondered how much your city’s public works department actually spends on street maintenance? Or received a parking ticket that made you speculate as to how much revenue your city collects annually from parking enforcement? If you live in Palo Alto, answers to these questions and more are now just a few mouse clicks away. 

After launching an Open Data Initiative in July, the City of Palo Alto recently doubled down on its commitment to government transparency and accountability.  Last week the city unveiled an interactive Open Budget tool, which officials assert is “one of the most innovative municipal data visualization tools in the country.” 

This time around the city partnered with Delphi Solutions, a  Silicon Valley start-up developing software to enhance government transparency, to create an open government platform that allows municipal employees and residents alike to access user-friendly data to better understand and analyze the city’s budget. 

The open budget tool provides users with rich graphical visualizations of the city’s financial information over a five year period. “We currently post a 350 page PDF document from which data extraction can be difficult. With Delphi’s visualization and analytical capabilities, the City’s financial data is now more useful and open for internal staff, citizens and software developers,” said Dr. Jonathan Reichental, the city’s Chief Information Officer.

The platform transforms complex information into easy to understand interactive graphs enhancing the public’s ability to hold city leaders accountable. Additionally, the option to provide feedback regarding the budget or the platform is offered at the top of every page. 

Without having read the how-to guide, in just a few minutes and clicks of the mouse I found out the city collected $20,246,000.00 in sales tax revenue in 2012 and that revenues are projected to increase by 11.4 percent in fiscal year 2013. 

Through the expansive filter menu, users can create individually customized downloadable graphs showing only the specific department, fund, expense or revenue they are interested in as well as trends over time.  Each chart can then be shared with friends on Facebook, Twitter and Google + or exported into excel allowing for further data analysis.  

Not only does the platform crack open the city’s financial data, it also has the potential to save the city money by shortening the amount of time city employees’ spend analyzing financial data and creating reports. As cities statewide are being forced to tighten their budget belts, every penny counts. 

With corruption scandals resulting from a lack of financial transparency and hidden budget surplus discoveries still fresh in the minds of many Californians, the need to shine a light on city and state budgets is now more apparent than ever before. 

California Forward believes that transparency is a cornerstone of good government and the key to earning back the public’s trust. As City Manager James Keene correctly points out, “it translates to a deeper relationship with our community. We’re removing barriers and supporting a more informed and engaged citizenry here in Palo Alto.” 

We hope other cities follow Palo Alto’s lead.

Categories: Government, Transparency

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