California Controller Unveils First Open Data Portal

Yearly tax revenues and expenditures are on display for all cities and counties with the launch of the state's new interactive portal.

by / September 9, 2014
California State Controller John Chiang speaks to more than 400 people attending the Port of San Diego's Maritime Day breakfast in May of 2012. Chiang recently unveiled his office's first open data portal on Sept. 8. Flickr/Port of San Diego

Money matters in California cities and counties have just become more transparent.

On Sept. 8, State Controller John Chiang pulled the lid off an open data portal that publishes more than 13 million pieces of financial data for revenues, expenditures, liabilities, fund balances and more.

The portal, called ByTheNumbers, gathers the state's financial data across an 11-year period from fiscal 2002-2003 to fiscal 2012-2013. In his announcement, Chiang described the eight-month project as yet another move toward additional transparency and accountability for the state -- and a move that gathers and publishes all financial data from jurisdictions yearly.

"By providing balance sheet details for every California municipality on one website and allowing users to slice and dice the information to spot trends and analyze spending, I hope to empower communities to become more involved in civic decision-making,” Chiang said.

The open data portal launch is one of many from the state capital this year, with others including the city of Sacramento, Sacramento County and the recent deployment from the California Health and Human Services just last month.

Jacob Roper, Chiang’s press secretary, said the state sees the portal as a major advance to digitizing a previously outdated and less accessible publication system. Since 1911, the Controller's Office has collected and published the financial data in paper form. As time and technology have progressed, the office has watched the data's reach diminish against the comparative impact of nimble online and interactive sites.

"This information has been collected for a long time," Roper said, "and we have been looking for ways to digitize it in a way that's usable for multiple audiences, but at the same time, offer just as good a service."

In a handle of the site’s dashboard, visitors can digest data from more than 450 cities and 58 counties via maps, charts and the exportable spreadsheets. Up to five cities can be compared at one time. And to decipher financial jargon, visitors have access to a glossary and contextual reference for analysis.

For cities measuring tourism, the site has measured transit occupancy tax revenues -- the taxes placed on hotels and lodging services -- for quick comparisons between differing years and neighboring jurisdictions. In all, Roper said the underlying motivation behind the number crunching and development was ease of use.

“We were looking for the best way to allow users to analyze the information using their own questions and make new comparisons that hadn't been made before" he said. “The process was just looking at a 100-plus-year reporting program and making sure we were able to pull out all the data and explain it." 

Next steps for the site include adding data from California’s 130 pension systems and special districts; however, depending on feedback, it’s likely that additional data for earlier years will be added to the site as well.

"I don't think anything would be ruled out.” Roper said. “It all depends on what kind of information is being reported by the local government.” 

Visit the California Controller's ByTheNumbers open data portal here.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.