Beautiful budgets? Look at Cook

Look at Cook

Developed and designed by Derek Eder and Nick Rougeux, open data and visualization project Look at Cook was created in collaboration with Cook County (IL) Commissioner John Fritchey to bring aesthetics to the county’s budget and expenses.

We asked Eder and Rougeux to share what they learned working on the project and how others can make government data more accessible to citizens (see also Alex Howard’s review of Look at Cook on O’Reilly Radar).

How did the idea for lookatcook.com come about?

After being installed as a Cook County Commissioner, John Fritchey, along with the rest of the Board of Commissioners, had to tackle a very difficult budget season. He realized that even though the budget books were presented in the best accounting-format possible and were also posted online in pdf format, this information was still not friendly to the public in general. After some internal discussion, one of his staff members, Seth Lavin approached myself and Nick Rougeux to develop a visualization that would let the public easily explore and understand the budget in greater detail. Seth and I had previously connected through some of Chicago’s open government social functions and we were looking for an opportunity for the county and the open government community to collaborate.

How did you develop it?

We were given the data in a fairly raw format as a basic spreadsheet broken down into appropriations and expenditures by department and year back to 1993. We were already familiar with other popular visualizations like the New York Times’ federal budget and Death and Taxes poster from WallStats, however while they were intriguing they seemed to lack a level of clarity. We wanted to explore how we could illustrate the budget in a way that anyone could explore without being an expert in county government.

Our research began with basic charts to get an initial idea of what the data looked like. Considering the nature of the data, we knew we wanted to show trends over time and let people compare departments, funds, and control officers. This made line and bar charts a natural choice. From there, we created a couple iterations of wireframes and storyboards to get an idea of the visual layout and style. Given our prior technical experience building websites at Webitects, we decided to use free tools like jQuery for front-end functionality and Google Fusion Tables to house the data. We’re also big fans of Google Analytics so we’re using it to track how people are using the site.

Collectively, we and Commissioner Fritchey’s office agreed that clear descriptions of everything were crucial to the success of the site so his office diligently spent the time to write and collected them. They also made connections between all the data points so seeing what control officer was in charge of what department. They also hunted down the official websites for each department.

What insights did you glean from the visualized data and any feedback from the community on this?

During the launch of the app, while being presented to a small group of Open Data enthusiasts, it was made apparent to us that displaying the data in this format shined a light on the inner workings of the Cook County Government. An example of this would be seeing the drop in appropriations for the office of the Cook County President which dropped by 74% from 2010. There are many other insights like this, which is why we want more citizens and journalists to explore it on their own.

What plans do you have for expanding it?

The lookatcook.com site’s app will continue evolving as more and more data is made available, soon to come the Capital Improvements appropriations approved a few weeks ago for this year will be added to the data. As soon as the 2011 expenses are released, that info will be added also. The site was designed and built to be flexible for just about any budget, provided the data are cleaned up and in a similar format. We’re open to collaborating with other municipalities or offices interested in making their budgets transparent—hopefully starting with the City of Chicago.

How can other cities and municipalities leverage this?

By making the information easily available, the public can feel invited to participate in budget debates. The public needs to know where their money is being spent and how government funds the services they are mandated to offer. Misinformation can lead to frustrating situations, dissolution, and distrust in our governments. The more we can do to inform the public, the better for everyone involved. By having this visualization out there as a positive example of what can be done, we hope that others will take a cue and develop more budget transparency initiatives.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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