January 23, 2013 By Colin Wood
In 1954, appropriations for New York state government worker salaries were on the rise (the information for which can be found in the form of a scanned black-and-white document on the state's new website, OpenBudget.ny.gov).
Budgets may have changed through the years, but so has technology -- this new website, announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 22, is the first step in the state's initiative to promote transparency, improve government performance and enhance citizen engagement. The new website features current state budget data, which can be narrowed down by department and agency, and historical budget documents dating back to 1954.
The website, which encourages visitors to “see how your taxpayer money is spent,” is the starting point for increased visibility of budgetary data in the state. Two organizations, PublicSignals.com and Empire Center's SeeThroughNY.com, have already begun developing applications that will make use of the website and provide new ways to visualize raw data.
OpenBudget.ny.gov features four sections: budget and actual spending data, appropriation data, capital appropriation data and historical archives. Users can browse budget data displayed in graph format and download data in Microsoft Excel format, and some data can be viewed in charts and graphs.
"Open Budget is bringing the people back into government by taking budget data out of government file cabinets and making it available to the public for the first time in an easy-to-access, downloadable form. This will facilitate research, analysis and innovation," Cuomo said in a press release. "As a first step in my Open New York initiative, Open Budget provides a powerful tool for transparency and accountability, fostering citizen engagement and enhancing the public's trust in government."
The website is an improvement over the previous offering of state budget data, said Morris Peters, spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget. “New York has always had a pretty open financial plan,” he said. “It's a document that has existed for a long time, but until now, it's just been PDF pages in the back of a big book. You can search it using Control-F, but it's not nearly as robust of a way to show data as what we have now.”
In addition to being more accessible, offering the state's budget data on a website will also allow software developers, academics and civic organizations new opportunities to create useful tools for the public. “Once they go live with these,” Peters said, “the public will be able to look at trends and charts and all kinds of exciting stuff. And really that's what happens when you put the data out there in the public.”
The state has been making the data available for years, as required by the Freedom of Information Act, Peters said, “but what we're doing here is proactively making it all available. ... It's all about public engagement, at its core, to enhance public engagement in government. Some of the benefits of this project is that there's going to be better understanding of how the government works, better understanding of where taxpayer dollars go.”
As the governor's efforts to increase transparency in the state continue, Peters said, more government data and operations will be revealed and New Yorkers will gain greater understanding of how their government works. “It's a long process and the budget data is just the first step, but we're very encouraged about what this means," he said.
The state will closely monitor the tools that are developed around its data and continue to solicit feedback from the public about how to improve the services offered, Peters said. In other words, the open budget data platform is in its early stages, he said, but the state is excited to see what grows from the platform. “The most exciting thing is what the world does with it with their collective intellect.”
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