Data-Smart City Solutions

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By Katherine Hillenbrand

A few years ago, Palo Alto’s mayor and City Council might have turned to the city’s budget director and asked what seems like a simple question — “how much have we spent on police pensions in the last four years?” Although the city had the data, it was locked in a complex enterprise system and a simple question about pension spending could turn into a time-consuming research project. The budget director and his staff would spend many hours each month trying to track down numbers for internal operations and to answer community questions.

Today, the mayor and councilmembers can just open their laptops and within a few clicks see a clear visual representation of the city’s budget.

In August of 2012, Palo Alto launched its Open Data platform to begin releasing its data publically, which included a function for residents to request datasets that would be useful to them. According to Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental, financial data was one of the top two requests from the community, making it a priority for future data release. The city chose to work with local startup OpenGov to design a new open budget platform from scratch, which not only made the budget data completely open but also provided extensive visualization tools to make it even more useful and understandable — Reichental notes, “it’s not your father’s spreadsheet.” The Open Budget launched in August 2012 with granular information about historical and current budget numbers, down to the object level. Available at www.paloalto.opengov.com, the tool allows users to view the data in different graph formats or in a table, to download any of it with one click, and to share any view on social media.

The city’s leadership and innovative culture were key factors in the push toward openness. David Ramberg, Assistant Administrative Services Department Director, noted that technology and transparency are “overarching themes for us as a city; we need to get information to constituents in a way that’s easily useful to them. The city’s constituents and City Council require that to stay engaged and make informed decisions.”

Although the primary impetus for opening data was transparency to the public, the visualization also holds great potential for transforming internal operations. Ramberg wants to use the tool with “the City Council, internal city departments, and the community, so that we can have conversations enhanced by more real-time financial information.”

Palo Alto has already won multiple awards for its Open Budget, including the Government Finance Officers Association Award for Excellence in Government Finance. The tool has been so successful that its creator, OpenGov, has since expanded to over 100 cities.

Palo Alto is constantly working to improve its transparency efforts. The city is currently adding fiscal year-to-date data to the visualization tool, which will make it even more useful for managing the city. Office of Management and Budget Director Walter Rossmann suggests that the next step for enhancing the tool is providing additional context, so that the terminology and processes become more accessible to residents.

Reichental is working with the City Council to codify openness as the default for the city, ensuring the ongoing longevity of these efforts. He emphasizes, “I recognize that data is one of our richest raw materials and how we use it is really an important basis by which our city will succeed in the future.”

About the Author

Katherine Hillenbrand

Katherine Hillenbrand is the Project Manager for Data-Smart City Solutions. She has been working on the project in different roles at Harvard Kennedy School for over four years. She holds a degree from Amherst College. 

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