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By Sean Thornton

The open data and open source movements seen in today’s cities are often associated with massive troves of online data, cutting-edge predictive analytics algorithms, data-tracking sensors, and other forward-thinking solutions. Taken another way, they are viewed as a world of complex, highly technical people with complex, highly technical tools addressing complex, highly technical issues.  Yet is this really always the case?   

 

Take a task as straightforward as releasing a report.  Chicago’s Executive Order No. 2011-7 dictates that the city must issue a long-term Annual Financial Analysis (AFA) report. The AFA report, prepared by the city’s Office of Budget and Management (OBM), provides a framework for the City’s annual budget as well as a guide for financial and operational decision-making.

 

Alexandra Holt, Chicago’s Budget Director, recently described the AFA report at the City Club of Chicago as “a holistic picture of the city’s finances, [which] projects the gap for the coming year, and it really is – for us—the start of the budget process.”

 

The report is thus an important one for both the city and its residents—as well as a complex one, filled with financial spreadsheets, charts, graphs, and maps, among other items. Its assemblage generally requires several months of intensive work by two to three OBM analysts, who cull and analyze content to generate revenue, expenditures, forecasts, and other report sections into a massive, printable PDF.

 

Until recently, the only other known alternative for producing a final deliverable was to hire a vendor to assemble a lengthy, colorful, and potentially costly report. With open-source tools, though, this process can be considerably enhanced without additional costs. And for the first time, going the open-source route for the AFA report is exactly what OBM decided to do.

 

With the city’s AFA report entering its fifth year, Holt, the City’s Budget Director, had plans to significantly shake up the process.  In spring of 2016, OMB contacted Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), the hub of Chicago’s open source activity and expertise, for help with the AFA. Tom Schenk, DoIT’s Chief Data Officer, quickly put together a plan built around Holt’s request: what if the City of Chicago built a wholly digital, interactive online version of the AFA report instead?

 

Using a combination of HTML, file sharing site GitHub, static site generator Jekyll, and digital visualization software Tableau, Schenk and his team at DoIT were able work with OBM to assemble that entirely digital version, fully compatible with mobile phones and tablets and loaded with interactive graphs and charts.  The process not only helped modernize the report, but brought the OBM team new insights on the report’s content, and opened up a more collaborative, yet streamlined means for production.

 

“This new method was a real opportunity for us to examine our [AFA Report] process, and how we categorize its data, from soup to nuts,” noted Eve Jennings, Deputy Budget Director of Data Analytics for OBM, who played a key role in the AFA’s assemblage. “It really laid out the groundwork for how we can do this kind of work in the future.” 

 

Working together through GitHub, the process required a lot of back-and-forth communication between DoIT and OBM.  Following OBM’s sharing of original report content over the platform, interactions generally consisted of DoIT sharing website drafts with OBM, who would then make changes via the online platform. 

 

With GitHub, a large number of contributors were able to review, edit, and comment on the report in real time.  And although many contributors had not used the platform before, they learned quickly —even non-technical users, such as OBM’s press and communications staff, found GitHub useful. 

 

Prior to this year, any changes and revisions required a much more laborious process of downloading and marking up PDF files that were managed by a small team of two to three people.    

 

 “We talk most about GitHub as a platform for replicating code,” says Schenk, “but it’s actually a great tool for projects like reports as well. And with a little training, anyone can use it.”

While this may not seem like a major development on the surface, something different is definitely apparent here: OBM, a department that didn’t regularly use open-source tools beforehand, was able to quickly and relatively easily collaborate via a supposedly technical platform — and yield positive results.  The final product, released on July 29th, has been Chicago’s most accessible and visual AFA report ever assembled. 

 

Chicago’s AFA report is significant because it exemplifies an open-source solution being embraced by a department that isn’t the city’s IT or innovation office.   The report also represents a break with slower, more potentially expensive, and more traditional norms for financial reporting in place of something that’s not only cheaper, but easier for the public to access. 

 

Hopefully, other departments – in Chicago and elsewhere – will be taking note of OBM’s positive experience.

 

“For other cities interested in this approach — know that it’s a team experience that blends the different skills and strengths of many people all into one project,” notes Linda Hanacek, OBM’s Director of Information Systems and a key player in the creation of the report.  “Next year, with a new system in place, we think that the AFA Report process will be even better.” 

 

This article has been updated to include that static site generator Jekyll was used.

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors. 

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