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A Big Part of COINS was not Published

lisa - July 9, 2010 in Open Government Data, Where Does My Money Go

This is a post by Lisa Evans, lead researcher on Where Does My Money Go?.

When I saw the COINS data that was published at the beginning of June, I suspected there was something missing.

I had been reading about the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) — a project to provide a really good detailed overview of government finances (more information in this previous post).

I was therefore expecting to see the local council assets and accruals data of the sort that is recorded in the L-packs as well as central government spending captured annually in the C-packs. But it wasn’t there.

I conducted some more investigation, speaking to the team at the Whole Of Government accounts. There team is really quite small — only two people in Communities and Local Government WGA team and five or six people in the Treasury — but they do an amazing job of documenting all public assets and accruals. What is more, they have been running it every year for 10 years, each year gathering a detailed picture of local authorities financial health.

Anyway, based on my existing knowledge and my conversations with the WGA team and others, I can now confidently confirm the WGA is completely absent from the COINS data that was released. This means there is no reporting of local authority’s spending in COINS. A report from the WGA is planned spring next year. But I believe this will be at a very high level of detail — the sum of the whole government’s assets and accurals, not the details of individual authorities and departments.

I have requested the 2008/2009 WGA data, with the Department of Health and the Department of Defence data removed, as I believe these two departments may have failed the relevant audit.

Now we’ll wait to see what happens.

The open spending data that isn’t

Rufus Pollock - July 2, 2010 in Open Data, Open Government Data, Open/Closed, WG Open Government Data, Where Does My Money Go

The following guest post is from Chris Taggart of OpenlyLocal, who advises the Where Does My Money Go? project on local spending data, and is a member of the Open Knowledge Foundation‘s Working Group on Open Government Data. This is a cross-post — Chris’ original post here.

When the coalition announced that councils would have to publish all spending over £500 by January next year, there’s been a palpable excitement in the open data and transparency community at the thought of what could be done with it (not least understanding and improving the balance of councils’ relationships with suppliers).

Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government Eric Pickles followed this up with a letter to councils saying, “I don’t expect everyone to do it right first time, but I do expect everyone to do it.” Great. Raw Data Now, in the words of Tim-Berners Lee.

Now, however, with barely the ink dry, the reality is looking not just a bit messy, a bit of a first attempt (which would be fine and understandable given the timescale), but Not Open At All.

As a member of the Local Public Data Panel, I’ve worked with other members and councils to draw up some clear and pragmatic draft guidelines for publishing the local spending data. We’ve had a great response in the comments and in conversations, and together with some lessons I did on importing the existing data, I think these will allow us to do a second draft soon.

One thing we weren’t explicit in that first draft – because we took it for granted – was that the data had to be open, and free for reuse by all. Equality of access by all is essential.

So I’ve been watching the activities of Spikes Cavell’s SpotlightOnSpend with some wariness and now those fears seem to have been borne out, as the company seems to set out not to consume the open data that councils are publishing, but to control this data.

The idea seems to be that councils should give Spikes Cavell privileged access to their detailed invoice information, which the company then adds to their proprietry and definitely non-open database, and then publishes an extract of this information on the SpotlightOnSpend website. Exactly what information they get, and under what terms isn’t disclosed anywhere.

The website’s got most of the buzzwords: transparency, accessible, efficiency. It’s even got a friendly .org.uk domain. If that’s not enough to convince councils, liberally sprinkled around the site is an apparent endorsement from the Secretary of State himself:

I’m really excited about the opportunities of transparency and it’s something this government is utterly committed to. spotlightonspend demonstrates that, when innovative businesses work with far-sighted public bodies, we can inform the public, reduce costs and improve democracy both locally and nationally.
Eric Pickles
Secretary of State
Communities and Local Government

However, when you go to the data and click on the download link this is what you get:

Note the “This data is for your personal use only”  (not to mention the fact that the use of a captcha’ to screen out machines downloading the data means, er, you can’t use machines to automatically download the data, which is sort of the point of publishing the data in a machine-readable way).

Never mind, surely you can just head over to the council’s website and download the data from there? No chance. This is what you get on the Guildford website:

You can search and view this financial data using a new Spotlight on Spend national website. Just follow the link found in the offsite links section of this page.

What about Mole Valley Council:

This data is now available on the spotlight on spend website. You can look at categories and individual suppliers to see how much has been spent in each area or you can download all the data to see individual transactions.

But what about Windsor & Maidenhead, who are closely affiliated with the project, and who are publishing data on their website? Well, download the data from SpotlightOnSpend and it’s rather different from the published data. Different in that it is missing core data that is in W&M published data (e.g. categories), and that includes data that isn’t in the published data (e.g. data from 2008).

So the upshot seems to be this, councils hand over all their valuable financial data to a company which aggregates for its own purposes, and, er, doesn’t open up the data, shooting down all those goals of mashing up the data, using the community to analyse and undermining much of the good work that’s been done.

It’s worth linking here to the Open Knowledge Foundation’s draft guidelines on reporting of Government Finances (disclosure: I helped draw them up), of which the first point is ‘Make data openly available using an explicit license’. And let me be absolutely clear here: this is not open data, not a desirable approach, will not achieve the results of transparency or of equality of access, and is not good for the public sector.

I’m hoping this is a matter of councils and the Secretary of State not understanding the process and implications of giving this data to Spike Cavell on a privileged basis. If not, perhaps it could be the first test case for the newly setup of Public Sector Transparency Board to rule on.

Emergency Budget, Deficit and Cuts: Visualized

Rufus Pollock - June 22, 2010 in News, Open Government Data, Visualization, Where Does My Money Go

Today in the UK the Conservatives/Liberal Democrat coalition presented their Emergency Budget.

Collaborating with David McCandless, Where Does My Money Go? have created a simple visualization to help you understand and contextualise the budget, and answer some basic questions such as: How much impact will the emergency budget have on the £156bn budget deficit? And what will those mind-boggling billion pound amounts actually mean?

budget cuts

Embed

Want to use this graphic in your own site or in the news? We’re happy for you to do so as long as long as you explicitly credit us and have a link back to this url. Here’s an html code snippet to do this:

Want a higher-res version, e.g. for print? You can get it here:

Credits

A Where Does My Money Go? visualization by David McCandless / InformationIsBeautiful, research by Lisa Evans and Tim Hubbard using on information from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and HM Treasury.

Can You Close the Deficit Gap?

Rufus Pollock - June 21, 2010 in News, Visualization, Where Does My Money Go

Where Does Your Money Go? challenges you to beat the Chancellor to it before tomorrow’s budget and close the UK’s financial deficit. Will you increase taxes, make cuts or a mix of both? No decision is going to be popular but are some more palatable than others, you decide.

Application Image

More information:

The application was created by the Where Does My Money Go? team. Researched by Lisa Evans and Tim Hubbard using many figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Visualized by Rufus Pollock and Tim Hubbard using the thejit and jquery.

Understanding COINS

lisa - June 17, 2010 in OKF Projects, Open Data, Open Government Data, Uncategorized, Visualization, Where Does My Money Go

Something amazing has happened since the government spending recorded in the COINS database was made openly available to everyone. I’m talking about the impressive range of free, and in many cases open source, products to display the COINS data.

So far there are COINS search engines from The Guardian and The Open Knowledge Foundation, graphs from Rapid Gate Way and Alpine Interactive and bloggers like Martin Budden have been powering away on their own projects to describe the COINS data. What a triumph for publishing government data. It beats the alternative of using public funds to pay for these tools when the skills and enthusiasm are clearly out there in the community.

coins1

That’s not to say that the products to display the data are complete right now, or that we have understood the COINS data completely. We had a few clues about the structure of the data from previous research, but there is no substitute for having the data itself, and we are still building up our knowledge. But given it’s been just over a week since we first laid eyes on the data, I think it’s fair to say that we are making good progress by most IT project standards.

In this post I want to address two questions that drive our thinking at the Open Knowledge Foundation, since the COINS publication. They are: ‘what’s important in COINS?’ and ‘how do we get meaningful results out of it?’

It has taken some discussion with the exceptionally helpful staff at HM Treasury and reading the COINS Guidance(PDF) and other related materials that make more sense now we can see the data — but finally I feel we have more accurate answers to both of these questions.

What’s important in COINS?

The COINS Guidance lists every field in the version of COINS that was released. One of the big challenges with a big complicated data set, like COINS, is knowing which of these fields are important.

To determine this I’ve spoken with the Treasury team about the fields they consider most useful, and the combination of fields they use most frequently.

The answers I got focused mainly on the central government spending and income data.

The spending and income is described for each central government department which you can see in the ‘Department description‘ field. Each department has a number of programmes that will either require or generate money. The department’s programmes are in the ‘programmes object group description‘ part of COINS, and more detail still is in the ‘programme objects description‘, and yet more detail still is in the ‘account codes‘ which are all listed in Annex B.

The ‘Value‘ field tells the actual spending or income in thousands of pounds. If the number is positive it refers to the departments spending, if negative it refers to the department’s income. It should also be able to check if the amount is spending or income from the ‘account code’.

In addition to the spending programme and ‘account code’ information, there are two further categories in COINS that describe the data very usefully, those are:

  • budget boundary‘. There are three choices for ‘budget boundary’: 1) DEL which stands for Departmental Expenditure Limits. These are items that have been budgeted for 3 years, it is estimated that DEL makes up about 80% of the items in COINS. 2) AME which stands for Annually Managed Expenditure. These are the budget items that are difficult to predict accurately and the risk for these is taken by the Exchequer as a whole. We are ignoring everything in AME where the ‘Programme /admin’ is not set to ‘Other’. 3) ‘not DEL/AME’ is budgeting for arm.s length bodies — we are not too concerned about these budget items.
  • the ‘resource capital‘. There are two options that are both useful for .resource capital. which are 1) ‘capital’ which is investment and capital assets. 2) ‘resource’ which includes all wages, salaries and operating costs.

There are some parts of COINS that we are less concerned with at the moment.

Other than the expenditure and income data, there are plans and estimates in COINS. You can see plans and estimates that should roughly correspond to the supplementary budget information and the supply estimates, respectively. We have been less concerned with plans and estimates as, by their nature, they will be less detailed than the outturn.

There is a CPID code in COINS which is there for a special project within the Treasury called the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA). This project will ensure that there is no double counting of the money when a transaction occurs between government departments. As I understand it, if body A gives money to body B then WGA would be responsible for subtracting the amount body B received from body A’s total. There are scripts in COINS to ‘best guess’ these subtractions using the CPID code, along with the WGA staff performing lots of checks too, but once this matching has been successful the CPID code is largely redundant.

The Whole of Government Accounts also collects information about spending by local authorities and records this spending in COINS, but this is not in a publishable state. However it is possible to view central government grants for local authorities with the field called ‘Local Government Use only‘.

How do I get meaningful results out of COINS?

On the advice of the Treasury guidance we are focusing on the Fact Table more than the Adjustment Table in COINS. In the fact table the field that defines actual spending and income is the ‘Data_type‘ being set to ‘Outturn’ and ‘Data_subtype‘ being set to ‘approved’ or = submitted_outturn (both of these conditions required).

In addition we can set Budget_Boundary to either DEL or if we require the shorter term budget spending then we set AME and then set programme/admin to ‘Other’.

For the 2009-2010 COINS data we can also set the Resource_capital2: set to Resource (on 2010-11 budgeting basis).

With the COINS data defined this way it is then possible look at the spending programmes and associated account codes certain that the results are actual spending and actual income for the time frame, rather than estimated or planned spending or income.

It is wonderful that the publication of COINS has brought so much innovation in the open software community. It will be even more wonderful if we can continue to develop to make public spending data easier to understand, particularly when so many important decisions are being made that will affect our lives.

COINS: A Users Guide

lisa - June 4, 2010 in Events, Open Government Data, Uncategorized, Where Does My Money Go

At 0930 BST today the UK government released the COINS database, one of the biggest sources of information on UK public spending. Open Knowledge Foundation Director Rufus Pollock says:

> The release of this data marks another milestone in the opening up of public data – in which the UK leads the way. While this is by no means the end of the line, this material is substantially more detailed than anything previously available and is a major advance for transparency of public finances.With our Where Does My Money Go? project we’ve already been working to make spending understandable to the general public and this new data is essential to realizing the project’s goal of showing exactly where each pound of your taxes goes.

**Update: for latest info see **

Lets be honest — it’s basically mystery how our tax money is spent. Like all good mysteries it’s compelling to find the truth behind it.

The publication of the COINS database today will a big step forward in resolving this mystery. COINS, which stands for the Combined Online Information System, is the main database used by HM Treasury for budgeting — and reconciling what actually happened against those budget plans.

Public bodies have a requirement to report their spending to COINS. Each local government body, and this includes all councils (except parish), all local police, local fire, local transport and park authorities, report all items of spending over £1million once a year. The record of this spending is gathered by Communities and Local Government (CLG) and audited before it is entered into COINS as spending from CLG.

Similarly, each central government department has to report spending on all items over £1 million and agreements over £5 million and that they define this spending use their own spending codes for this. Some of these items are well defined in COINS — others less so.

Each of these bodies provide not only their spending once a year, but also estimates of their spending for the year ahead, once a month for every item of spending.

With the publication of COINS we can now see, for the first time all in one place, the spending and estimates for all of these public bodies.

But bringing this all together has a slight problem — there’s lots of accounting jargon that we can cut through here, to understand the great significance and value of this publication.

COINS: A User Guide

*Permanent url: *

COINS is a big listing of estimated or actual entries of money.

Each entry in the listing involves a named goverment department’s money.

Some of the entries show a department has bought something like a service or a product. Other entries show a department has recieved some money.

Key features:

  • Programme objects and Programme object groups: each department creates Programme Objects to which spendings is assigned.
  • Account types (SCOA = Standard Chart of Government Accounts): standard “accounting-like” classifications of spending. Details of how the money is recieved or spent, so you can choose all spending on Wages & salaries or Current Grants to private sector.
  • CPID: If money is exchanged between government departments we have a record of which departments were involved. The Counter-party Identifier (CPID) in the entry line is the description of the other department.
  • Data type: Each of the monthly and yearly budgeting exercises can be identified with the Data Type category. Examples of these are Forecast Outturn March, Forecast Outturn April etc.

The release of the COINs data is a huge step forward for transparency in the UK. We hope that the release of the data will lead to much better public understanding of how public funds are being spent. We’ve been very keen to get hold of the COINS data for our Where Does My Money Go? project and our team are already on the case, working to create intuitive visual representations of the data. If you’d like to follow our progress, you can find us at wheredoesmymoneygo.org or on Twitter at @wdmmg!

Opening up government finances

Rufus Pollock - June 3, 2010 in External, OKF Projects, Open Data, Open Government Data, Open Knowledge Foundation, WG EU Open Data, WG Open Government Data, Where Does My Money Go

The following guest post is from Chris Taggart of OpenlyLocal, who advises the Where Does My Money Go? project on local spending data, and is a member of the Open Knowledge Foundation‘s Working Group on Open Government Data.

With a string of announcements this week and the COINS database (the UK’s biggest source of information on public spending) about to be released tomorrow, it’s an exciting time for open data in the UK at the moment! When I first played around with the idea of opening up the basics of local government data (which turned into OpenlyLocal), I never imagined I was entering an area that little more than a year later would become such an exciting area, combining two of the hottest online trends, open government data and local data.

But still, there’s a hell of a long way to go, and one of the areas where there’s furthest to travel, and most to do is finance, specifically where the money’s being spent, who it’s being spent with, and also where it comes from. As the old journo saw goes: follow the money.

I had my first taste of the problems when I took a pretty much unused (and locked) spreadsheet, the 2006-07 Local Spending Report, and over the course of a weekend, unlocked it cleaned it up, imported it into a database and allowed people to do what the spreadsheet didn’t — make comparisons on local spending across councils and in areas.



However, the information was fairly heavily aggregated, was for just one period, and didn’t allow comparison with other financial reports.

So at the last OKCon a month or so ago, I sat down with some of the good people from Where Does My Money Go to discuss in some general principles for presenting government finances as data, to allow it to be properly analysed, combined with other data, and follow the flow of money to and from all branches of government, central and local. Now, the first draft has been published:

  • The hope was that we could establish some general principles that would be applicable not just to government finances in the UK, but also for other countries too. Some of the key points are:

  • Machine-readable — we need the information as data that we can do things with.
  • Fine enough granularity so we can understand what’s going on, both in terms of categories, time periods, and transactions of any sort of size.
  • Using standard IDs to allow definitive identification and matching of bodies, areas and categories.

Obviously we’d welcome comments from both the UK and other countries. It’s also worth noting that there are two overlapping but slightly different areas: the accounts, and the transactions. Ultimately if you have access to the transactions you can work out the accounts, but it may be worth teasing out the distinctions, particularly in light of the UK moves (see below).

At the same time as doing this, in the UK things have been moving on apace, with the new coalition government announcing that by January 2011 all spending by local government over £500 must be published, which in government terms is a blink of an eye.

In addition, Will Perrin and I, who both sit on the Local Public Data Panel, were also asked for advice by Camden Council, who in the best traditions of open data wanted to get on and release their data a lot earlier than this.

Within literally a few days, and with much helpful advice from many of the other Local Public Data Panel members, a first draft was done, and was published yesterday on data.gov.uk. This clearly is very much a UK document, is concerned with local spending, and is framed by the goal of publishing spending over £500. However, like the Open Knowledge Foundation document, it’s meant as a first draft, and a focal point for discussion and I’d encourage all, whether open data and transparency advocates, or those working in local government (including police, health authorities etc) to add their comments to this document too.

UK Government commits to open up new spending data!

lisa - June 2, 2010 in Open Data, Open Government Data, Uncategorized, Where Does My Money Go

It’s exciting times right now for people in the UK interested in how public funds are being used. The new government has proposed to publish unprecedented amounts of spending data in unprecedented detail. In the new Coalition Programme for Government (PDF), the PM has committed to the following, which is very similar to the Conservative pre-election promises but with more detail and — crucially — a schedule!

  • Historic COINS spending data to be published online in June 2010.
  • All new central government ICT (information and communication technologies) contracts to be published online from July 2010.
  • All new central government lender documents for contracts over £10,000 to be published on a single website from September 2010, with this information to be made available to the public free of charge.
  • New items of central government spending over £25,000 to be published online from November 2010.
  • All new central government contracts to be published in full from January 2011.
  • Full information on all DFID international development projects over £500 to be published online from January 2011, including financial information and project documentation.
Local government spending transparency
  • New items of local government spending over £500 to be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011.
  • New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011.
Other key government datasets
  • Crime data to be published at a level that allows the public to see what is happening on their streets from January 2011.
  • Names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for most Senior Civil Servants with salaries above £150,000 to be published in June 2010.
  • Names, grades, job titles and annual pay rates for most Senior Civil Servants and NDPB officials with salaries higher than the lowest permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale to be published from September 2010.
  • Organograms for central government departments and agencies that include all staff positions to be published in a common format from October 2010.

This is all great news for the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Where Does My Money Go? project. In particular we have been researching the COINS database as a rich source of data to visualise. In addition, it is noted that the current standard for reporting central government spending(PDF) is items above £20m in any year by region, so the £25,000 standard seems like a big improvement, hopefully this will also be spending by region.

In The Beginning There Were Mystery Boxes

lisa - May 26, 2010 in Open Data, Open Government Data, Open Knowledge Foundation, Where Does My Money Go

JJ Abrams, the creator of Lost gave a great talk at TED 2007 themed around “Mystery Boxes”. A Mystery Box is a box of unspecified goods. When you buy a Mystery Box – from a magic shop, as Abrams describes doing with his grandfather as a child, or from a pet store, sweet shop, or wherever – you don’t know what’s going to be in it, you can only guess.

mystery-box

Abrams says Lost and other TV shows are littered with mystery boxes, not literally, but in the sense that the plot and characters within them are like mystery boxes: you don’t know what they are about until the end. The strength of the show is the big tease about what might be in the boxes:

So there’s this thing with mystery boxes that I started feeling, like, compelled. Then there’s the thing of, like, mystery in terms of imagination — the withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging.

If you like the idea of magical mystery boxes then you’re going to like this.

I’ve been looking at where our tax money is spent. That might sound completely unrelated to popular TV shows, but this research has been all about the tease of what might be in the mystery boxes of the British Government’s spending records. In this post, I’m going to share the questions I’ve asked about the Government’s mystery boxes, and the replies I’ve got (as well as the ones I haven’t).

I’d appreciate help and advice on every line of enquiry I mention here.

This is the rough picture of public spending databases I’ve gathered so far, as part of my work as a researcher at ‘Where Does My Money Go?’ (click on the image to see the full picture).

public-spending-databases1

On the left, you’ll see that our taxes go in to HMRC, then travel through the Treasury (HMT), on their way to Central Government departments, from where they fan out into various spending bodies, including communities and local government. What I’m interested in is tracing records of spending as they pass from one department to another.

Now I’ll list my investigations and findings for each department I’ve looked into.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC)

I want to know how our tax records are stored, but so far I’ve only got this very very sketchy description (in response to one of many requests I’ve made under FOI). That reply does give some good clues about how National Insurance tax is stored in the statement:

For example the collection of National Insurance is supported by the National Insurance and PAYE system (NPS). This is a substantial build on what was previously known as the National Insurance Recording system (NIRS) to add on the PAYE business processes given the close interaction between the collection of PAYE tax and national Insurance. It has its own underlying database with customer information, but links to other databases within HMRC and in DWP to ensure that customer data is treated consistently throughout both departments.

Another thing we know about how our tax records are stored is that most of HMRC is outsourced and the contract for this outsourcing is not public yet. We know the contract is called ‘the Aspire contract’, and we have some background reading to do on it. hmrc

HM Treasury (HMT)

There is a project within the Treasury called ‘The Whole of Government Accounts‘, which aims to:

“consolidate the accounts of about 1300 bodies from within the central government, health service, local government and public corporation sectors.”

A database called the Combined Online INformation System (COINS) was developed to make this consolidation of accounts possible or easier or both. The Whole of Government Accounts has yet to report its work.

When I first started looking at the COINS system, very little had been made public about how detailed the spending records are. We’ve now got a pretty good understanding of the data in COINS as a result of our ‘where does my money go?‘ research.

coins-pesa

We are now working to get:

A sample of complete COINS entries. The costs associated with the spending codes.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS)

I know of two databases that store spending data in the ONS:

  • The CSDB (central shared database) does not use an ORACLE database. I’m in the process of finding out more details about the CSDB.
  • The CORD system (Centralised ONS Repository of Data) used for some parts of the annual production process in ELS does use an ORACLE database. I have the schema for this one.

ons

As well as these two databases, I’ve been told the ONS gets a copy of the COINS data for it’s reports and I’ve had a request for the COINS data sent to the ONS rejected.

Other Departmental Accounts

Contacts at HMT have let me know that each government department has its own record of accounts. I’ve been investigating how the Department for Work and Pensions store their accounts, and my next step is to request the data.

cgd

Local Spending

I’ve also got the schema for the Oracle database Cambridge County Council use to store their accounts. The next step is to ask for the data or a sample of it.

la

These are my mystery boxes. Hopefully, by now, you’re as curious to know what’s inside them as I am.

Greater London Authority Spending and Where Does My Money Go

Rufus Pollock - May 21, 2010 in OKF Projects, Open Data, Where Does My Money Go

We’ve done a quick-and-dirty import of the GLA spending data (ckan package) into a Where Does My Money Go Data Store:

http://london.wheredoesmymoneygo.org/

For example, here is what they paid to Vodafone:

http://london.wheredoesmymoneygo.org/account/c988ca22-214b-47ef-af19-5fd3cfdc781b/postings

Big hat-tip to Donovan Hide and scraperwiki who scraped the data into a usable form.

It’s running at a different URL from the main data store for the moment as you see. The eventual aim is to host both data sets at the same URL, but we want to be a bit more cautious about updating the main site from now on.

We’re trying out a slightly different data model. The difference is that the Account objects really do represent organisations or parts of organisations. This means we have to put most of the meta-data on the Transactions instead of on the Accounts. We think this will make more sense for data sets where we can track money flows, e.g. COINS.

The UI has not been updated for the change of data model, so you will find that various things are not displayed when you might expect them to be. We will fix the problems in due course…

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