To decipher government finance for citizens, localities are turning to a new budget app that’s proving digital transparency doesn’t have to mean high costs.
The solution, popping up in Massachusetts, Virginia and North Carolina cities and counties, comes from civic tech consultancy VisGov, which has seen an increase in adoption rates of its open source budget visualization app “Visual Budget” for the past year and a half.
Similar to popular paid solutions from companies like OpenGov and Socrata, VisGov’s free budget visualization tool helps users understand budget figures with interactive and color-coded diagrams. Citizens can see an overview of expenditures and revenues, then dive deeper for insights into specific funding categories.
VisGov Co-founders Alan Jones and Annie LaCourt said the app is in 15 localities now, and a handful of jurisdictions are preparing to deploy it soon. The state of Massachusetts has also awarded the two a $40,000 grant to develop the tool into interactive visuals that — with a snippet of code — can be placed in any website. Arlington-based design firm Involution Studios also supports the app by serving as its technical partner.
Prior to creating the Visual Budget app, LaCourt — a longtime private-sector IT consultant — had served eight years on Arlington’s Board of Selectmen (essentially the city council) and Jones — a former IT business and product manager — served as the vice-chair on Arlington’s Finance Committee, a position he still holds.
With their experience, the two said the concept for the app was inspired by a desire to educate Arlington’s citizens with hard data, assist city staff with budget communication, and aid other cities hunting for low-cost transparency tools.
“For smaller communities I think it’s a big deal because they can’t always afford the big vendors,” LaCourt said, “and it allows them to prove value, both to themselves and to taxpayers.”
Jones said with the code on GitHub, the app, minus minor deployment and maintenance costs, is essentially free. With a little bit of internal or external IT support, cities can launch the app on their sites. Updating financials is fairly straightforward and can be done via a spreadsheet, without coding. And since users often represent a minority of interested citizens, there is typically a low volume of visitors. This means no paid subscription plans to enterprise-level cloud hosting companies like Amazon Web Services.
“The host we use is something like a $100 per year, registering a domain is about $10 to $12 per year, so we’re really talking peanuts of cash outlay,” Jones said. “It’s really just about the time [to deploy the Web app].”
Among VisGov’s first adopters are Virginia's Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The civic tech nonprofit Smart Cville (Smart Charlottesville) spearheaded an effort for the localities to create customized versions tailored to their specific budget terminology and funding.
Charlottesville's Budget Office released the app in 2015, and this July, Albemarle County followed suit with the support of County Supervisor Brad Sheffield and direction from Lori Allshouse, Albemarle’s director of budget and performance management.
“Our leadership is really excited about these projects, so there’s no hesitation, only encouragement,” Allshouse said, adding that although the tool arrived after the county's fiscal 2017 budget process, the hope is that it will be a starting point for collaborative decision-making in the future — and especially for budgeting conversations next year.
“Any way you can get the data out for folks is great. Some people want to read more of the narrative [in traditional documents], some people want to use this type of a tool,” said Allshouse. “To me, it’s just another way to reach out to different parts of your community and hope that they’ll have enough information to ask a question that becomes part of the dialog.”
Smart Cville Chairman Lucas Ames said that while fine-tuning the contextual language, descriptions and terminology took some time, the technology portion of the job was rather simple, and is something other cities and counties could easily replicate.
“In terms of coding time, it really is a pretty out-of-the-box solution that the guys at VizGov have created," Ames said, "and that’s why anyone who’s interested in doing it, we’re looking forward to helping them.”