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Pittsburgh's New Budget Tool Makes Data More Accessible

A new tool from the Pittsburgh Office of Management and Budget aims to make data on budget decisions more transparent, as one of many efforts the city has undertaken to make data more accessible to the public.

The image features several stacks of coins with an image of data overlaying it.
Pittsburgh, Pa.
The city of Pittsburgh’s budget transparency tool from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is the latest way the city is leveraging data transparency to empower and inform constituents.

The city’s leadership has increasingly centered data governance to improve performance in recent years. The city’s data work has included a range of improvement, from fire preparedness to better communicating with residents about city projects.

The new budget transparency tool, announced earlier this month, was created through a collaborative effort between the city, ResourceX, Delivery Associates-Digital and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The hub offers users a way to interact with budgets using near real-time data to understand the way different departments are spending their money through videos and visualizations.
Screenshot of Pittsburgh OMB's budget transparency tool.
Screenshot of Pittsburgh OMB's budget transparency tool.
“On the one hand, it’s trying to figure out how we can actually represent this to our residents or visitors into Pittsburgh in a way that is clear, concise, understandable, and also available at varying levels of depth and detail,” said Patrick Cornell, deputy director of OMB. “It’s also that the budget is a reflection of [the administration's] priorities."

And in addition to showing the capital budget details that would break down overhead costs of a project like a bridge repair, Cornell said the tool also aims to bring understanding to the operating budget, which includes things like the salaries of workers that fix said bridge. The goal is that this multifaceted approach will help residents to better understand certain investments and their returns.

The project started through the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. According to Cornell, that original partnership led to the new work for this budget tool.

Through the challenge, the team worked to create program inventories for all of the city departments, a significant undertaking. Those programs were scored against the priorities of the former mayor to find opportunities to improve sustainability.

Throughout this undertaking, the team realized that the same approach could be used for the regular budget process and to create a platform that was budget specific. Made simpler by the existing relationship with ResourceX, OMB was able to branch off from the challenge to continue the relationship separately through legislation, procurement — and a contract — and the project continued under the leadership of Mayor Ed Gainey.

The platform itself intends to make complex data simple for users without advanced budgeting knowledge, so centering the user experience in the design process was critical. Cornell said the first priority was making sure that it would be clean and accessible from any device that a user might choose to access it from. In addition, creating a section for frequently asked questions covered some of the general background information on budgets for the everyday citizen.

For those with more advanced data analysis skills, there is the option to download a CSV format of the information to do their own analyses or create their own dashboards.

There’s also a way to explore this data through a sustainability or an equity lens. Cornell explained that last year was the first step and this year will take that further. Last year, the Department of City Planning’s Sustainability and Resilience team looked at budget requests and built the sustainability rubric to rank them. This year, a similar approach will allow the city to look at this data from an equity standpoint.

“So again, it’s allowing different groups to take a crack at the data and see what sort of improvements we can make,” Cornell explained.

The tool also clearly indicates the mayor’s priorities for the budget cycle, so that residents can compare goals and their actualization.

While there will be ongoing updates to the platform, the major updates will occur annually to coincide with annual budget changes. For the annual update, there will be interdepartmental collaboration to re-evaluate changing needs and priorities.

“This is really just one part of the puzzle — one tool in the toolkit if you will,” Cornell said.

Cornell says that with any major project like this, although it is a big undertaking and requires buy-in from leadership, he believes it’s worth it to give the city increased clarity as to what government is doing.

For the city, there are a range of other data-related projects at various stages of progress. On the budget side alone, OMB is working to increase surveying as well as using GIS data to map projects that are in progress for residents. Also, the city’s Balancing Act tool allows people to click and slide different budget categories to better visualize how spending in one area may affect spending in another.

This includes having all staff participate in data governance training camps, assigning work data coordinators for each department, taking full inventories on the data sets that each department has, and exploring how these data sets can be used both internally for city staff and externally for residents.

“Citywide, Mayor Gainey is definitely championing open data; his predecessors have also been huge proponents of it,” Cornell said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.