LA City Controller opens the data floodgates with new online resource

150 150 Christopher Nelson

In a city the size of Los Angeles, five weeks might as well be five minutes when it comes to the government accomplishing anything significant in that span of time.

But about five weeks is what it took L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin’s office to build and launch ControlPanelLA, a slick and intuitive portal into a massive amount of the city’s under-the-hood data that was launched this morning via a press conference at City Hall East.

Flanked by Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilman Bob Blumenfield and various staff and representatives from other stakeholder organizations, Controller Galperin pulled back the curtain on his shiny new toy.

“Knowledge is power – and this initiative is about providing both to the people of Los Angeles,” said Controller Galperin. “This is the start of a new way to think about transparency at City Hall – not just reactive transparency, but proactive transparency and the road to a truly open government for an informed public.”

Now you can quantify just how much company your misery is in when you get a ticket; Los Angeles has raked in $153 million so far in 2013 by levying such fines.

According to their press release, ControlPanelLA displays General Fund data going back to 2011 (when L.A. installed its current financial management system) and includes:

  • CheckbookLA – A virtual City “checkbook” that enables users to search payments to external vendors by department, vendor name, or expenditure type;
  • The Data Catalog — A treasure trove of the City’s financial data at the public’s fingertips – including revenues, appropriations and expenditures of the General Fund, audits, and more than 57,000 payments to City vendors;
  • Search tools — Multiple ways for the public, researchers, and civic leaders to explore and view the data line-by-line, or in the form of charts, graphs and other visualizations.
  • Developer tools – Interactive options for techies to create their own apps, and to save or to share them on the site with others.

“It goes hand in hand with the value city government now holds here in Los Angeles, reflected by all elected officials who are here, that this data is not our data, it is the public’s data,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. “The more tools we give to people to look at data, to track important measures, the more power that they will have to control the direction of their city government.”

Councilmember Bob Blumenfield agreed, giving a nod to the open data movement sweeping the nation and likening the unveiling to looking in the mirror and seeing what’s there, “warts and all.”

This was pulled together in such a short period of time by working with Socrata, a Seattle-based firm that specializes in government open data solutions and that CA Fwd first reported on back in February of 2012. Their platform comes with all of the parsing mechanisms and data visualization tools built right in, according to Kyle Hall, a special assistant to the Controller and the man who was in the driver’s seat when it was time to demo the site to those in the room.

Not having to build their own visualization tools and interface was a huge cost-saver, Hall said. Whereas New York City’s checkbook app cost in the neighborhood of a few million dollars, Los Angeles was able to do this one for “a fraction of the cost.”

Of course, there are always pitfalls, both in the numbers and with who owns them.

Accounting practices are not uniform across all city departments and as the old adage goes when talking databases, “garbage in, garbage out.” Luckily, the Controller’s office already scrubs accounting data as it comes in from other city agencies, which is probably the single largest reason why they were able to get this project off the ground so quickly. The next step there is to unify reporting and reporting systems.

And then there is the issue of privacy. Names are not yet associated with city employee salaries and the details of more than $100 million spent on liability/lawsuit payments since 2011 cannot yet be broken out. Politics will undboutedly come into play for those data points in the gray area. The Controller’s office may want to share something that a given department may not. So while the creation of the site was shockingly devoid of bureaucratic hinderance, rounding out the picture with more granular data the public and the press have appetites for might prove to be the trickier part.

The missing names in the salary query and the massive $100 million spend with the innocous “liabilty” label, representing the largest expenditure for the city since they installed their new financial management system, were just what was noticed in the 15 minute demo. Surely as much is already there, further holes and lack of detail will be found. Contract-level data from DWP, LAX and the LA harbor are already on the to-do list for the next wave of updates.

For now, however, there is a massive amount to sift through, save, export and post to any manner of social network directly from the site. And they have made it all available via API to the developer community at large, so while this may seem like more of a tool for the press and auditors, cross-sections of the data may show up in phone apps that prove extremely helpful to John Q. Public.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see what the next five months and five years hold for something that in five weeks became to a very legitimate foray into the realm of not just open data, but large swaths of intuitively accessible data, by the City of Los Angeles.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson