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The New York City Comptroller Built a Fiscal Transparency Website, and Now It's Open Source

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, June 6 2013

Comptroller John Liu Photo: Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Media

The source code of New York City's Checkbook NYC platform is now available for other governments to download, modify and reuse, New York City Comptroller John Liu announced during Thursday's Personal Democracy Forum.

Checkbook NYC is a web application that presents data from the city's financial management systems online. Users can view or download information about city spending, broken down by agency or vendor, for example. In addition, information about contracts, payroll and disbursements is linked together, rather than existing in separate silos. It also offers API access that developers can use to build other applications on top of raw data about city spending, as well as bulk data downloads. The comptroller's office has also promised to make city income data available on the platform soon.

Liu also announced that the information technology companies Oracle and CGI had agreed to develop automated data feeds known as adapters between their financial management systems and the Checkbook NYC system. Oracle and CGI's support means cities that use their software to manage finances could also adapt Checkbook NYC for their use.

REI Systems, which has worked with the city on developing Checkbook NYC and making it available in open-source format, also volunteered to provide technological expertise and tools to Oracle and CGI to test the automated data feeds and host so-called sandbox development sites for a small number of the companies' state and city financial management system clients.

Altogether, Oracle, CGI and REI have invested over $1 million in resources to help make the platform available to other cities, according to a press release.

Plans are under way to organize a "Checkbook NYC" hackathon in the fall to bring together civic activists, software developers and entrepreneurs to develop applications based on the platform, according to the press release. In addition, discussions are under way to form a consortium of governments to collaboratively manage the source code and jointly share costs of future enhancements.

The code is available under the AGPL 3.0 license at Github.

At Thursday's PDF event, Deputy Comptroller Ari Hoffnung gave a demonstration of the platform, which first launched in 2010 and was revamped earlier this year.

Hoffnung said Liu was very much interested in setting up a system would be just as easy for the public to interact with as buying a book on Amazon or checking a banking statement online.

"How many New Yorkers know what an API is?" Hoffnung asked.

With Checkbook NYC, he said, at a cost of less than $3 million, information from the city's financial management system for 4,000 users within city agencies, a system supported by CGI, is now potentially accessible to all 8 million New Yorkers and beyond.

In his remarks, Liu, also a candidate for mayor, emphasized that Checkbook NYC not only puts pressure on city agencies to spend tax money more efficiently, but also shows city contractors how much their competitors are charging, putting pressure on them to bring down costs. He emphasized that the expansion of Checkbook to other cities would benefit New York City as well.

"If the city of L.A. decides to adopt Checkbook, and then builds a mapping app, NYC can benefit from that," he said.

In theory, New Yorkers could enter their zip code and see investments in their neighborhood. The data feeds offered by the companies would lower the barrier for other governments to adopt the system because they allow the governments "with the flip of a switch to feed their financial data into checkbook. "

Noting the large amount of money state and local governments spend on information technology, "in an era of scarce resources, we have to invest dollars more strategically," he said.

In a statement, Socrata said it would support Checkbook by offering it as a turnkey cloud service, and enhancing the platform with open APIs for developers and data analysis and visualization tools for the public.

Hoffnung said the Comptroller's Office has been in many conversations with other cities and states about adopting the platform, and noted that the availability of the data feeds meant other governments wouldn't have to spend resources on data extraction and data mapping, services that would instead be provided to governments "at no cost to jump start the process."

In the city's press release, several cities and civic groups praised the new open source nature of the platform and expressed interest in it.

"New York has provided a very easy-to-use transparency portal to gain access to budget, payroll and departmental expenditures, to the point that not only will the citizens of New York benefit, but internal departments will benefit by having easy access to their own information for better management and accountability,” Steve Reneker, general manager and CTO of the City of Los Angeles Information Technology Agency said in the statement. “The City of Los Angeles will be looking into leveraging this open source solution to provide similar benefits.”

“We applaud New York City and Oracle for the work they are doing to promote financial transparency,” Maryland's Montgomery County Controller Lenny Moore said in the statement. “Montgomery County is a leader in open data and is always working to make government spending more accessible and easier to understand for our taxpayers. We are intrigued by the possibility of deploying an open Checkbook.

“Checkbook NYC is by far the most sophisticated city-budget transparency app to date," Adam Stiles, co-creator of Open Budget Oakland added in the statement. “By making Checkbook available to cities nationwide, NYC is enabling a common framework to understand city spending that could one day allow, for example, apples-to-apples comparisons of spending across cities.”

“Checkbook NYC is a flagship example of the emerging ecosystem of interoperable, useful, and reusable civic tools," said Code for America Chief of Staff Abhi Nemani. "This is the kind of project Code for America hopes to support in city after city.”

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