BC Budget Visualizations – DIY Transparency & Local Government

BC Budget Visualization Tool

Going against the grain of most of my usual blog content, this post is political, opinionated, and locally-focused. It is however, also about data visualization, open government, accountability. Consider yourself warned.

I live in British Columbia, where our ‘liberal’ government has announced plans to make staggering cuts to arts funding over the next year. I was interested in seeing how the cuts to arts funding stacked up against the rest of the spending reductions. I also wanted to get involved with some of the groups and organizations protesting these cuts, and wondered how I could offer the most useful assistance. I thought I’d start by taking a closer look at the budget figures that were released, to put the Arts & Culture issue in context.

To get at this information, I created a dataset from the September Budget Update. It took about an hour of cutting and pasting – BC isn’t exactly on the Open Government wagon yet, but at least all of the .PDFs were formatted the same way. This is DIY transparency – I’ll be posting the full data set as a Google Doc later today.

Once I had the data (stored in a tab-delimited text file for now), I built a lightweight visualization tool in Processing which let me organize and view the data in some useful ways (this took about 4 hours). The main question that I wanted to investigate was this: How do cuts to Arts & Culture funding stack up against cuts in other government business areas?

BC Budget Visualization Tool

In the images above and below, we see the 114 items in the budget with expenditures of $1M or higher (bars represent money spent). Arts & Culture funding moves from the 57th highest expenditure at 19.5M in 2008/2009 to the 100th highest expenditure in 2009/2010 with less than 3.7M in funding. This is clearly a significant drop. Not only does Arts & Culture lose a lot of money, it loses much more money in comparison to other programs.

BC Budget Visualization Tool

When the 114 expenditures are arranged to display gain (in blue) or loss (in red), the picture becomes even more clear (here, bars represent percentage loss or gain). With a loss of more than 80%, Arts & Culture suffers the second worst cuts – with the worst being another Arts & Culture-related line item!

BC Budget Visualization Tool

Compared to other business areas with similar budgets, this decline is particularly drastic. For example, Asia Pacific Trade & Investment falls only 26% (from 16.179M to 11.593M) and Small Business, Research & Competitiveness falls only 21% (from 21.966M to 17.263M). Tourism, overseen by the same ministry as Arts & Culture, enjoys a rise in funding (due to the 2010 Olympics) of 12% (from 18.305M to 20.505M).

Let’s look at same set of graphics, this time limiting to expenditures between 10M and 30M (the visualization tool allows us to restrict the view to any monetary bracket). There are 40 expenditures in the 10-30M range, shown in the charts below. First, the 2008/2009 expenditures, with the bars representing money spent:

BC Budget Visualizations

Now, the same 40 expenditures in 2009/2010:

BC Budget Visualizations

And those line items showing the amount of loss or gain, with the bars this time representing percentage loss or gain (there will be scale lines in the final tool) :

BC Budget Visualizations

These graphs, even more than the first set, show that Arts & Culture has been singled out for much larger cuts than any other similar government business area. Why?

It may be that the Liberal government doesn’t consider a thriving arts & culture industry to be part of their plans for our province. By making such drastic cuts, they also appear to be ignoring studies (many of which they  have referenced in their own documents) which demonstrate that investments in the arts tend to lead to an increase in GDP. Going further, some would suggest that this policy move is a purely political one – meant to curry favour with voters who are generally antagonistic towards anything ‘artsy’.

Mind you, we can’t rule out general fiscal incompetence.

Things are Good for the RuralBC Secretariat

When we visualize data we often get a chance to see patterns or anomalies that we might not otherwise notice. In the third image in this post, above, you may have seen the left-most blue bar, which actually stretches well past the top of the image. That same blue bar is shown, to scale, in the image above. The bar shows an increase in budgeted operating expenses for something called the RuralBC Secretariat, which apparently gets a one year only 793% increase in funding from 4.154M in 2008/2009 to 32.951M in 2009/2010 (this increase is roughly 2x the cuts to arts & culture). This entry seems to have clerical error written all over it. The budget for the same department in 2011/12 is 3.951M, and in 2012/2013 is 2.951M. Do those numbers seem strange to you, too? Have a look at them together (from the service plan update):

RuralBC Secretariat hits paydirt

Doesn’t it look like that ’3′ (or 2) in 32,951 was added by accident? Whatever the source of this extra $30M in expenditures, it carries through in the main budget estimate document, and is figured into the main budget numbers that were announced to the press.

It’s entirely possible that this is a legitimate increase in expense. I could find no mention no of the extra expense either in the service plan update or on the RuralBC Secretariat website, but it may be for some under-publicized rural Olympic-related initiative. [NOTE - please see the comments for some discussion about where this extra expense may have come from]

That said, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the BC Government can’t do simple math, and might have put an extra $30M into a line item where it didn’t belong. Oops.

Wether or not this anomaly turns out to be a mistake, the ease with which data can be gathered and analyzed by the public will hopefully make my government and others more accountable. This will be facilitated by large, organized open government movements (such as data.gov in the US) - as data is more freely available, these large projects offer more freedom to investigate and question the activities of our politicians. However, investigation and analysis can and will also happen on an individual level, by using tools like Processing or OpenFrameworks. Big brother may be watching – but we can watch them right back.

Finally, here is a video capture from the visualization tool in action, showing some of the interface and transitions between states. I plan on releasing a public version of the tool for online use before the end of the week. The graphics (click on each one to get to the Flickr page) are Creative Commons licensed and free for anyone to use.  Please get in touch with me if you would like to get high-res versions for print, or would like to get access to the full data set.

BC Budget Visualization Tool from blprnt on Vimeo.

29 thoughts on “BC Budget Visualizations – DIY Transparency & Local Government”

  1. Did a quick google regarding the RuralBC Secretariat 'error':

    "This year, Canada’s New Government and the Province of British Columbia have each provided an additional $23.5 million to the Canada-British Columbia Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund as part of their commitment to help smaller communities meet their pressing infrastructure needs."

    Also, regarding how the funding will be distributed: "At least 60% of funding will assist with “green” projects such as water, wastewater, public transit and environment energy improvements."

    http://www.th.gov.bc.ca/CBMRIF/

    1. Thanks, Craig.

      I did a google search, too.

      While it seems clear that this fund falls partially into the Ministry of Community and Rural Development, I can't see any direct link between that fund and the RuralBC Secretariat. I may have missed something.

      In any case, I think the 'this year' that is referred to in the page you linked to is 2008/2009, when the estimates expenses for the RuralBC secretariat was 4.154M. I would guess that the 23.5M (or some portion of it, as this fund is shared with the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure) would have been put into the 'Local Government' line item, or a line item in the Transportation & Infrastructure budget.

      As I said in my post, the most obvious answer here is that there was some kind of exceptional, 1-year only spending. It just isn't clear from the service plan or the ministry pages where that expense comes from.

  2. Thanks, Craig.

    I did a google search, too.

    While it seems clear that this fund falls partially into the Ministry of Community and Rural Development, I can't see any direct link between that fund and the RuralBC Secretariat. I may have missed something.

    In any case, I think the 'this year' that is referred to in the page you linked to is 2008/2009, when the estimates expenses for the RuralBC secretariat was 4.154M. I would guess that the 23.5M (or some portion of it, as this fund is shared with the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure) would have been put into the 'Local Government' line item, or a line item in the Transportation & Infrastructure budget.

    As I said in my post, the most obvious answer here is that there was some kind of exceptional, 1-year only spending. It just isn't clear from the service plan or the ministry pages where that expense comes from.

  3. Infrastructure Development Branch, part of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, is responsible for the development and delivery of various funding programs,amongst others: Major Regional Sports Facilities Initiative, Major Post-Secondary Sports Training Facilities Initiative, Olympic/Paralympic Live Sites Program

  4. Isn't it naïve to think that it's an error? Also, forgetting that it may be an error. Perhaps it's not a useful comparison to the cut to the arts. You're looking at that one line-item in isolation, without attempting to learn anything about it, and then jumping to some conclusions. I don't know what the real skinny is, but I can google and found that for 09/10 the overal budget for the Ministry of Community Development has dropped by $54M. The $30M increase to the RuralBC Secretariat is balanced with a $82M decrease to the "Local Government" line item. Both of which seem to rebound for the planned 2010/2011 budget (where the Secretariat is $30M less and the Local Government is $100M more).

    It's still an assumption, but isn't it safer to assume that, rather than an error in the budget the Community Development Ministry has simply shuffled it's funding priorities (or merely the accounting of the money) for this year?

    Even if you don't want to assume that it's not an error. Isn't it a bit disingenuous to highlight a $30M increase next to the Arts cut, when in reality The Community Development Ministry got an overall $54M (23%) decrease (regardless of how it chose to internally account for that money)?

    http://www.bcbudget.gov.bc.ca/2009_Sept_Update/sp

  5. Nice work Jer. Although I don't expect the picture to be all that much different, it seems to me that your analysis isn't complete. As you're aware, Arts & Culture is heavily funded through gaming in this province and although I don't know what the Arts & Culture breakout is from the nearly $49MM that was allocated to Arts, Culture and Sports in 2008/2009, that's a big enough figure that I would question an analysis that didn't include it. What is clear is that the number is going down given that Minister Coleman has stated that "A limited number of arts and culture activities" will be funded through the community gaming grant program in 2009/2010. Long term that's not a good thing for people of British Columbia.

    1. Tim,

      Good points. I would have included information about the Gaming funding, if that information was available. Though we can mostly track down where that money went last year, it's not clear what kind of cuts are being made to the gaming program contributions this year (probably something less than the 100% originally announced).

      I would suspect that the picture would be the same or worse:

      2008/2009 – $19.5M + some percentage of $49M
      2009/2010 – $3.7M + some lower percentage of a conceivably smaller chunk of money

      I'll be releasing the visualization tool shortly – as well as a public google doc with the data which will allow people to add notes and links to related information. This, I think, will be valuable to see what is happening with provincial finances from many different viewpoints apart from the A&C issue.

  6. First of all, nice work, Jer! This info is a good way of presenting the taxpayers what's going on with their money.

    The way how the government runs lies almost entirely with the people in power. The department that interests the one in power is often favored leaving others almost neglected.

    This makes us, the ordinary people, need to carefully choose who will manage us. A plain taxi driver such as I would never want my hard-earned money in someone else's pocket that easy. The government should look after the peoples' best interests. Remember folks, the lifeblood of every government relies on their citizen's taxes.

    Taxi Service Virginia

  7. Great post! You opened my mind on what is going on with the tax I am paying. I realized that the government has control of everything. We should be wise in choosing whom we are going to place in the position because we may never know which of them are true. Each one of us works hard for money and then what we worked for will be just stolen from us. That was unfair! As a taxpayer, be wise and critic. As a citizen, fight for what is right and just.

  8. In the "technical" world that we live in the arts are often looked at as less important. I grew up and went to school in a place that focused on math and science. I fear that no one is looking at the lack of dimension that results from this. Would you want people that look at everything from a strictly technical viewpoint with no knowledge of the arts and humanities?

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