From small beginnings in a hackathon, here’s a great story from Oakland of how OpenSpending can be deployed to improve civic engagement on a local level.

open budget oakland

The beta version of Open Budget Oakland went public last week with the release of our mayor’s proposed budget for the next two years. Her announcement was made Wednesday afternoon and by evening we had visualized and made available for discussion three levels of spending data. Within the week, the site was starting to help people make sense of the budget, and City Council invited us to present the site at their next meeting as they begin the budget process.

While still only an outline of the resource that we plan to build, we’re seeing the first glimpses of people gaining a better understanding of the city’s budget, asking questions, and sharing ideas.

From hackathon to civic collaboration

At a hackathon in Oakland last July, Shawn McDougal, a university math teacher and community organizer pitched an idea: we need an app to help people understand our city’s budget — to see where our money comes from and how it’s spent, to enable people to share and discuss their own budget priorities. The idea grabbed people’s attention — by the end of the day, about ten of us had copy/pasted budget data from a 350-page PDF and made an almost-interactive pie chart with big aspirations. For a one-day project it was enough to win grand prize. It also provided a realization: accessing our city’s budget data isn’t easy, and once you have data, it isn’t immediately clear how it can be shared in a way that helps people.

We met weekly to dig deeper, drawn in varying degrees to the coding challenge, to open data, to how a budget app could support more engaged democracy, in particular, processes like participatory budgeting. But an initially slow process with the city proved too long for most of our data-hungry volunteer developers who slowly went back to their day jobs. In pursuit of coders and better communication with the city, we joined with OpenOakland, a Code for America brigade that meets every Tuesday at City Hall. This is a forum where residents and city officials collaborate to improve access to public data and build civic apps. Here we were able to connect with Bradley Johnson, a city budget analyst who now works with us to access and interpret the data.

While OpenOakland connected us to City Hall and local programmers, what we were envisioning wasn’t going to happen over a few evening hack sessions. In researching how a non-coder non-budget-analyst like myself could build a database and visualize the city’s budget, I found OpenSpending and realized, with envy and relief, that what we wanted to build had already been started. The OpenSpending community helped us assess which tools would work best for our particular vision, and developers provided support as we customized code to allow people to comment on and share various views of the budget.

Building a conversation

Early in the design process we agreed that both visualization and conversation are necessary for either to be meaningful. Simply seeing the budget, while absolutely necessary, will not in itself lead to civic engagement or empower people to advocate for different budget priorities. People need a means to ask questions, to share insights, to connect with the people who decide and communicate the budget.

In the coming weeks, we’re adding discussion forums, voting mechanisms, and considering ways to connect people’s questions to answers — whether related to how the budget impacts local communities, open data, visualization, or the idiosyncrasies of the Oakland budget process. We’re also encouraging city officials to participate in discussions on the site, and sharing visualizations with journalists when it can help tell their story.

Now that we have a basic model — visualization, conversation, sharing — the hardest work is to make it relevant and useful to people’s real lives. It means listening to the many communities of Oakland to learn how exactly the budget matters to them, working with the budget office to make that data available, and recruiting people to help build the tool they want to see.

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