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Updated Indiana Transparency Portal Emphasizes Usability, Public Good

The state took a measured approach to updating its transparency portal, following up on suggestions from a range of stakeholders.

Indiana has been a leader in making information ranging from contracts to agency budgets available to the general public. But when the first phases of its transparency website redesign started late last year, issues of data quality and usability were key.

In order to create “a more functional and robust data analytics tool” that gives citizens an insider’s perspective on government spending, the Indiana Transparency Portal (ITP) project would have to “improve the data quality of the state’s financial information” while marrying it with new analysis tools, officials said in its charter.

Three state agencies collaborated on the project — the Auditor’s office, the Office of Technology, and the Management Performance Hub (MPH), the state's analytics solutions provider. The State Budget Agency also partnered on advising and ensuring the portal contained the most accurate data. High on their priority list was forging a redesign that would be as essential to state agencies as the public. Work on that first phase began in November, and it went live at the end of June.

“I believe that state agencies and legislators will probably use this data and this site more than anybody else because they’re going to need it to do their job. If it’s done well,” said state Auditor Tera Klutz, who saw the initiative as a priority because of the value Indiana places on transparency.

The original ITP, which went live in 2010, was still well-regarded by “government watchdogs,” MPH said in the charter, but after nearly a decade was “in need of updating.” 

The state had the option to “go really capital-intensive,” Klutz said in an interview with Government Technology, but chose instead to use software it already had and a team that was already in place under the governor. 

She described the old website as "labor-intensive to update" and in need of automation, though, she said, it was not a lost cause and could be enhanced — a viewpoint shared by the state’s Director of Engagement and Analytics Alexandra Ibragic.

“The old website, it was this big, long list and you could kind of filter. There was just no way you could search for somebody with a name,” Ibragic said.

Officials heard all this and more during two focus group sessions in November with state government and external partners. They refined that information into user stories that conveyed precisely what stakeholders were hoping the new website would accomplish.

The chief financial officer for the Department of Revenue, for example, wanted to compare revenue projections with revenue collected to “anticipate and plan for potential budget changes” and compare major expenditure categories between state agencies.

A member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government wanted access to the metadata behind ITP-housed data to gain a deeper understanding of that content. And a member of the Hoosier State Press Association wanted to “gather big data sets” to compare Indiana with other states on key performance metrics.

The new tools and dashboards that resulted were created through a solution matrix that included Tableau for visualization; SAP for data collection; and open-source solutions like Python for manipulation. The three collaborating agencies shared the total project cost of just more than $597,000, which state Chief Data Officer Darshan Shah said was a huge win.

“When it comes to being efficient with taxpayer dollars, we believe that the solution that was done over here — it was literally done for pennies on the dollar in comparison with what other states have spent. So, from that standpoint, we’ve been able to deliver a solution that has a very similar utility but at a much lower cost,” said Shah, who is also MPH director.

The response thus far, Ibragic said, has been good, with agencies already approaching MPH about accessing data in different ways; search contracts more easily; and the Lieutenant Governor’s office expressing interest about creating a dashboard to audit and track federal grant monies. The state, Shah said, is creating data analytics solutions going forward and would be “more than happy” to share what it has learned and potentially even some of its code.

“Based on the fact that much of this is really done for the interest of the public good. We want to be able to share and be able to benefit other communities however we possibly can,” he said.

Theo Douglas is news editor for Government Technology. He was previously assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news.