Open Budget Oakland is a group of civic hackers working on budget issues. At the beginning of 2013, they initiated the idea of launching a budget visualization site, with the goal to increase participation from citizens and stimulate citizen debate around the city budget. The platform should enable citizens to explore budget nuances, to discuss the implications of policy decisions, and to ask informed questions, and it should facilitate information flow from experts in the field to interested citizens.
In February 2013, Open Budget Oakland connected with OpenSpending in order to plan the launch of OpenBudgetOakland.org. From February and up until April, the small team worked to complete the app and launch it in time for the Mayor’s annual release of the budget proposal for 2013-2015. The team succeeded launching the visualization of the proposed budget on the day of its release. Shortly after the launch, the project gained recognition from the City of Oakland as it was offered to present the project at city hall.
Technological setup and challenges
The first budget of Oakland was accessed in July 2012 as a 350-page PDF file, which was copy-pasted into a coherent spreadsheet and an almost-interactive pie chart at a one-day hackathon. The process led directly to this conclusion:
“accessing Oakland city budget data isn’t easy, and even once you have data, it isn’t immediately clear how it can be shared in a way that helps people.”
The small volunteer team at Open Budget Oakland built the site within a few months of 2013 based on OpenSpending technology, adding two new distinct features. From March 2013, OpenOakland engaged several email conversations on the OpenSpending mailing lists and received contributions via GitHub from OpenSpending developers:
- a Disqus commenting module, which enables users to discuss each spending item and thus improve participation
- a browsing feature for the OpenSpending histogram view, enabling easier navigation in OpenSpending
- D3 for visualising income and expenditure in one chart budget visualisation developed developed by Peter Krantz, another OpenSpending community member
Open Budget Oakland has also considered the possibility of pursuing transactional spending data, though this is not available at the moment from the Oakland City Council.
The community is considered key for generating a budget discussion going forward past the initial media coverage.
Open Budget Oakland is a part of Open Oakland, which has a volunteer team of 21 members working across the entire open government agenda. The group organises weekly meetups for volunteers and is supported by Code for America.