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New Tool Takes You Into the Treasury's Bank Account

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, July 12 2013

Last September Cezary Podkul, a Reuters data reporter, found himself in a fix. He wanted to make sense out of the debt ceiling controversy using the Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service daily treasury statements, which provide a view of the federal government’s spending, borrowing and deposits on a day to day basis. But he was limited in his analysis by the files’ messy formatting.

The reports were in “these giant, fixed-width text files that clearly come from a mainframe,” he says. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data in a better format, the Treasury told him the only format in which the data exists is on the website. So he talked with some of his friends in csvsoundsystem, a group of data journalists and programmers centered around Columbia University, and they got to work making eight years of daily Treasury reports searchable and useful. After refining the project through a weekend event co-hosted by Columbia and Stanford datafest, a $10,000 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews grant, and some talks with the Treasury, they’ve come up with a tool to solve Podkul’s original problem. It's called Treasury IO.

Treasury IO lets users query government expenditures agency by agency in specific detail — down to the day, week, month, and year.

“If you wanna see how much we spent on NASA or foodstamps last Wednesday, it’s in there,” says Podkul. He’s putting together a list of 50 useful queries. Using the tool, you could track the salaries of government employees over time. You could compare how much citizens pay in taxes versus how much they grow the debt. Or, as another example, you could compare Medicare spending to premiums over time. These queries, without Treasury IO, would require a laborious, tendonitis-inducing amount of clicking and tabulating through individual reports.

“This is data that really should be much easier to get,” says Michael Keller, a members of csvsoundsystem, and the senior data reporter at Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He points out that these data provide the basis for being able to discuss just how the government is or isn’t working. “It’s kind of what they say with the census surveys: it’s where facts come from.”

The free project is augmented by a Treasury IO twitter bot that spits out daily analyses of the data. Its database is also available on GitHub. On Thursday, the project had its official release party, hosted by the Code for America brigade betaNYC. While there’s certainly many more uses to be found with the tool, there’s also a message.

“That a group of technically inclined citizens with $10,000 can provide a service to the country that the governmett can’t provide itself, it’s pretty shocking,” says Brian Abelson from csvsoundsystem. “These things aren’t very hard to do.”

This article was updated to correct an error. Treasury IO includes the last eight years of daily treasury reports, not the last 15. The remaining seven years of treasury files are in PDF rather than text form. Csvsoundsystem hopes to parse them eventually.