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A Look at New York City's Participatory Budgeting Map

PBNYC’s maps serve to foster data literacy and empower residents to become active members of their community through new digital means.

According to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, NYC Council is kicking off “the largest demonstration of grassroots democracy in North America” this summer. He’s referring to the Council’s Participatory Budgeting (PB) program, through which community members can vote on how to spend $1,000,000 from the budget of participating Council Districts. Voting for Cycle 7 of PBNYC wrapped up just a few months ago, and now residents can begin posting their ideas for Cycle 8 online.

To do so, residents can drop pins on this map to pitch project ideas in one of 12 categories, including things like housing and transit. For instance, Padric Gleason from Astoria, Queens, proposed the idea of installing solar panels and a rainwater collection system on the roof of PS 17 Henry David Thoreau, in honor of Thoreau’s love of nature.

A pin dropped on a map of NYC and a resident suggestion for the marked location
During voting for Cycle 7, a number of residents asked members of the PBNYC Participation Lab team about the impact of participatory budgeting on their community. In response, the Participation Lab developed another interactive map to display data on PB projects gathered through the NYC Data Portal.

A map of NYC with pins illustrating projects that have been completed, are in process, or which lost the vote
On the same website, projects are also sorted according their category, the number of votes received, the cost, and the agency that has undertook it (or would have, had the project won the vote).

Graphs displaying projects according to category and budget
Each graph provides a different set of insights into the priorities of voters. For instance, it’s clear that libraries and schools are a top priority for participants in PB, and they appear to be most enthusiastic about projects in the $200k-299k range.

New York City Council has a history of winning awards for its participatory budgeting program. In 2015, they won the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government, and earlier this year PBNYC’s Participation Lab received both the Mayor’s Civics Award and the Open Data Award in the first annual NYC Open Data Project Gallery Contest. Upon receiving these awards, Hadassah Damien, Director of Data & Technology for the Participation Lab said, “New York City residents decide together and vote on how to spend $30 million taxpayer dollars on community projects in PBNYC — of course they want to know how those projects are coming along!”

This year, 31 council districts from across all five boroughs have signed up to participate in Cycle 8. That means $31 million of New York City’s $89 billion budget — roughly 0.035% — will be put to a direct vote. In context, the sum is paltry, but evidence suggests that participatory budgeting operates best at a small, local level. In a study of Porto Alegre, a Brazilian city which is often heralded as the first to enact participatory budgeting, researchers at the World Resources Unstitute found that PB proved “less effective” with larger-scale projects, due to their complexity. Overall, PB was better suited to “mobiliz[e] popular demands around discrete, small-scale infrastructure about which neighborhood residents could more or less agree.”

It’s possible that the same would be true for New York City, and that it would be better off for PBNYC to remain small-scale. It’s important to note, though, that the value of PB is not proportional to its allotted budget. PB programs like New York City’s provide valuable information about the priorities of residents, as well as a platform for a dialogue between residents and city government. In particular, PBNYC’s maps serve to foster data literacy and empower residents to become active members of their community through new digital means.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.