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A New York City Transparency Project Will Open-Source a Look Inside the City's Checkbook

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, February 9 2012

An early rendition of what the next NYC Checkbook website might look like. Courtesy NYC Comptroller's Office

The office of the New York City Comptroller has begun coding up a revamp to a site that already gives a comprehensive look, updated daily, at nearly every check issued by the city.

For the first time, the city will also offer software developers direct, programmatic access to a comprehensive trove of information about New York's fiscal health. And within a few weeks after the updated site launches, city officials say, the source code will be released online under an open-source license.

Several states and cities around the country have started releasing their check registers online. But the New York website, called Checkbook NYC and launched in 2010, is about to get a massive upgrade that promises a new level of access to information. A new version of the site expected to launch this year will grant access to detailed information about the contracts related to each individual payment, city vendors and the contracts they're working on, and how payments made to date stack up against each agency's budget. The site will also include information about incoming revenues and should also play host to a collection of audits, budget reports and other analysis produced by the network of entities responsible for poring over the city's finances.

"Our goal is to make New York City the most financially transparent government in the United States," said Ari Hoffnung, who is now the city's deputy comptroller for public affairs but had been involved in launching the original Checkbook project while working in another part of the Comptroller's office.

Open-sourcing the project was "very interesting" to the comptroller, Hoffnung said, as a way to "end predatory vendor lock-in" and to create something that other cities might be willing to share the cost of maintaining and improving.

An early rendition of what the new Checkbook 2.0 might look like.

The new version of the site, which Hoffnung is calling Checkbook 2.0, is expected to have an application programming interface at launch. In theory, this could enable third-party developers to pull raw data from the city and use them to build anything from a site that tracks how much the city spends on pizza parties for employees to one that provides a daily look at how tax revenues are sizing up against expectations.

Checkbook 2.0 is modeled off of USASpending.gov and is being built by REI Systems, the same team that built the Federal IT Dashboard. Civic Commons, an organization that works to increase adoption of open-source software in government and to help governments open-source their projects, has been consulting on the project from the beginning to help guide the eventual release of the revamped site's source code. USASpending.gov was criticized for having inaccurate data; Hoffnung says that the way the city tracks its finances will prevent the same issue, but more on that later.

"Here we're getting a chance to get in on the project earlier and make sure that things are set up in an open-sourceable way," Fogel said. Civic Commons has also helped open-source the Federal IT Dashboard; San Francisco's enterprise addressing system; and the ChangeByUS platform for pitching and sharing civic projects, among others, but the partnership with the comptroller's office is a rare opportunity to get involved at the start of a project rather than the end.

Checkbook 2.0's expected cost is $1.5 million — a hefty sum, but not as much as the city spent on CityTime, a boondoggle project to build a streamlined payroll system for city employees that was supposed to cost $63 million but instead cost New York over $628 million — thanks in part to alleged fraud and kickbacks that became the centerpiece of a federal investigation and have led to at least one guilty plea.

And Hoffnung says the city's Financial Management System, a centralized database that all city entities use to record and track transactions, has cost $315 million so far. With the Checkbook beta release and other software that's already been developed, the whole Checkbook project's estimated price tag is $2.87 million — less than 1 percent of what FMS costs. Hoffnung says the comptroller is comfortable with that ratio.

FMS — which resides in a server farm at the headquarters of the city's Financial Information Services Agency — is the unique asset that makes this theoretically possible. FISA was created in response to the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s and tasked with implementing a centralized system for budget, accounting, and payroll. Through FMS, the agency tracks every payment the city makes. You can go here, for example, and search for how much the city has spent at Staples in the past month, if you want. (Payee information is withheld about 20 percent of the time for reasons of privacy or security, Hoffnung says.) But the amount that will be made available online is just a fraction of what FMS tracks: Of an estimated 2,100 gigabytes of data in the system, Hoffnung told me, only 51 gigabytes are now accessible online. Checkbook 2.0 will make a larger sliver of data available, but it will still be just a sliver.

Hoffnung contacted techPresident about this project partly in the hopes that it will generate feedback from our readers. For instance, Hoffnung gets that the site should have an API, but said it's unclear exactly how that interface will be structured, what data will be made available through it, and so on. The idea of making available bulk financial data about the city has not entered the discussion.