Mining open data for financial transparency

Framingham, Mass., is putting budget data into a self-service portal where staff and residents can drill down into specific line items in the city’s budget.

For years, the residents of Framingham, Mass., complained about the costs of trash pickup or police overtime without knowing how much they really cost the city.  Now the city's  financial transparency center lets locals drill down into specific line items in the city’s budget and compare that information to past budget years.

Framingham CFO Mary Ellen Kelley worked directly with ClearGov to share the last eight years of budget data internally with city employees and publicly with local residents. Framingham’s budget, debt and reserve fund information, along with demographics and education snapshots,  is now available through a portal on ClearGov’s website.

ClearGov pulled data on the municipality from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, and Kelley’s office provided supplemental information specific to Framingham.  Portal users can see city revenue, such as property taxes and state aid, as well as expenses related to Framingham Public Schools, public safety divisions and retirement and Medicare appropriations.  They also get year-by-year comparisons in graphs and tables.

Taxpayers can provide information from their tax bill  and the portal will show how much is directed to different divisions of city government.

“Beside each department is a bar graph that shows the trends for spending, and then you can look at different breakdowns,” Kelley told GCN. “Growth tends to be a real topic of conversation for us, but if you look at something like sanitation, we can see that we are paying about the same amount that we paid in 2007.”

To determine how the budget data should be configured within the portal, Kelley said she shared the data from 2016 and 2017 into a test database to make sure that everything was accurate and mapped correctly.  The process took two months, and then data from 2010 through 2015 was added.

For the 2018 budget, data was uploaded into the portal, but Framingham plans to show year-to-date progress by allowing ClearGov to pull the information directly from the city’s website.

Kelley said the portal makes her job easier by providing historical data.

“I use historical data very often with my long-range forecasts and budget summaries to project forward, and I can get the data from our ClearGov site,” Kelley said.  “I’ve also used screenshots from the website in my reports, which saves me time rather than having to create something new.”

While Framingham has not conducted a public awareness campaign related to the portal, Kelley said the city wants improve citizen engagement with the budget process.  Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer is holding community conversations on various topics -- such as the future of downtown Framingham, the opioid crisis and taxes and affordability -- where she will share information on the budget with residents.

ClearGov pulls demographic and financial data from the Census Bureau and state and local resources and puts it into portals that municipalities can claim and manage for their own purposes.

“We are really in the early days of the open data movement because we are just starting to get better insights into the finances of communities," ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock said.  "[We] want to push the needle to make transparency tools useful.”

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