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New Apps Make Government Wallets Transparent

Socrata announces new budget and spending transparency apps for government, and Montgomery County, Md. prepares to go live.

While it may sound trite, “following the money” remains one of the best ways to pinpoint priorities in business or government.

It was on this premise that Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company known for its open data offerings, unveiled a suite of financial transparency apps that can be used to publish and simplify spending data. The new lineup, launched this month, includes Socrata Open Budget and Socrata Open Spending, apps that deliver charts, graphs and tables to visualize complicated financial data for easy-to-read analysis.

"When we talk about citizen engagement, it's really about allowing citizens to better understand how their governments are allocating their funds and appropriating the budget, and then how that money is being spent over time,” said Bill Glenn, Socrata’s vice president of marketing.

Interest for the financial transparency suite came from Socrata clients -- jurisdictions that reported a rising number of financial data requests. Primary drivers of the demand, he said, were residents, the media and government employees.

“We found these customers really looking for a way to bring more financial transparency to budgets and spending in particular, to be able to make a better connection with their citizens and to drive better trust and engagement with citizens,” Glenn said.

The Open Budget App features charts and visualizations generated directly from updated budget data, revealing details like money allocated for specific programs and departments. Citizens can also see funding going towards programs and projects in their own neighborhoods.

A sibling to Open Budget, Open Spending depicts trends in government spending over time and by category. The app can provide graphics comparing spending across a large range of topics, down to check-level detail. It also enables users to browse government vendors and identify how much each has received for government projects and services.

While the financial suite is a first for Socrata, tools like this are becoming popular in government. As they enter the marketplace, Socrata’s additions will compete with similar government financial transparency apps such as the popular OpenGov platform, used by Los Angeles and more than 40 other jurisdictions.

The suite will likewise compete against open source programs such as NYC Checkbook, free open source code developed by New York City to shed light on city spending, contracts and payroll information. The program was initially promoted as a way to spotlight and eliminate wasteful spending in New York City’s roughly $70 billion budget.

Competition notwithstanding, Socrata’s integration of the financial suite into its established ecosystem of civic apps, platforms and support services will likely be a compelling draw for government decision-makers as the battle for open data app dominance continues.   

"As technology advances, I think government leaders and government staff members are going to turn to the use of apps to communicate highly complex information in much more understandable ways,” Glenn said.

A future adopter of both of the budget and spending apps, Montgomery County, Md., was a catalyst for the suite. Victoria Lewis, project manager for the county’s open data platform dataMontgomery said the process began when county officials requested a custom finance app.

"Once we saw people looking at these other open checkbook sites we felt the audience around us might be ready for something like that,” Lewis said, referring to county residents who would llikely embrace the technology.

A collaborative development process ensued as Socrata worked closely with the county’s technology and finance teams to understand budget and spending practices in addition to hearing resident feedback. When Socrata presented a concept of the two apps, Lewis said it “fit the bill.”

“Unless you really know the budget, and how we compile the budget here, or unless you know how we spend money and what our terms are, the data sets would be really hard for the general resident to understand,” said Lewis. “These really common understandable ways to slice and dice this data are going to be the best part of this.”

Yet, as plug-and-play as the apps are made to be, research and deliberation is ongoing at the county, which is why the apps have not yet been installed on their site. Lewis explained that not all county financial data can be made public -- exceptions include private financial data and data protected by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

"That's the large challenge our financial department has in trying to figure out what they're going to filter out,” Lewis said. "I think once we've completed this, and have a solution, we're going to learn a lot from it.”

The filtering process is expected to occur relatively soon, she said. The budget app will launch sometime this spring, with the spending app following shortly thereafter. Best practices for launching the apps are being documented and the county will share this information with other interested jurisdictions.

Socrata intends to add more transparency apps to the suite later in the quarter that will detail government contracts and revenues. The long-term hope for the suite, Glenn said, is for it to become a robust set of apps that benefit a variety of demographics beginning with the citizen and extending to academia, businesses, open data entrepreneurs, political activists, journalists and government employees themselves.

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