Project: BC Budget Visualization Tool Date: September, 2009 Language:Processing Key Concepts: Data visualization, data organization, sticking it to the man
More and more data is being released to the public every day. Big initiatives like the US data.gov and the UK’s upcoming data.hmg.gov.uk are resulting in a mountain of interesting data sets. These transparency initiatives are a step in the right direction, but we are quickly going to find ourself with a surfeit of data, and a very limited number of people with the skill set to do something with it.
One solution to this is to standardize the data so that generic tools can be built to dig into the data sets. This is a great idea – but it will take a lot of work, along with something that governments are not typically too good at: consensus.
Until that happens, tools like Processing offer another solution – make small, custom tools for individual data sets which can be built quickly and can be used specifically to work with the characteristics of a specific data set. Because Processing is fairly simple, journalists, researchers and activists can all be empowered to investigate data themselves, without having to rely on expensive or difficult to acquire resources.
This sketch is an example of how this might work. I wanted to investigate the recently announced staggering Arts & Culture cuts in my local government‘s budget, and built a simple tool to do that. All told, it took about 5 hours to gather the data, produce this tool and get the results out on the web – certainly a turnaround time that would be useful for media and for activists looking to be quick with their responses.
Move the sketches into your Processing sketch folder. Open Processing and open the BCBudget sketch from the File > Sketchbook menu. You’ll find detailed instructions in the header of the main tab (the BCBudget.pde file).
Again, this project uses Karsten Schmidt’s amazing and incredibly useful toxiclibs.
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?
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.
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!
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:
Now, the same 40 expenditures in 2009/2010:
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) :
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.
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):
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.