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Palo Alto Uses Open Data to Engage Residents in Budgeting

Case Story

City of Palo Alto uses Open Data to invite public input on budget.

Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, is no stranger to technology. The city is headquarters to a number of high-tech companies such as Hewlett Packard and VMWare. Palo Alto is now using its assets to help engage and educate its residents in the city’s budgeting process.

Story Highlights

  • The City of Palo Alto has partnered with a local technology company to create an Open Data Budgeting Tool that enables residents to create sortable graphs, charts and budget scenarios.
  • The City hosted and Open Source Data event to encourage residents to use available data to create solutions and software to help save the city time and money.
  • The engagement effort is mutually beneficial for the city, residents, and private industry who are able to share knowledge and feedback about the processes. 

Lessons Learned

  • Other communities interested in adopting Palo Alto’s approach must be ready for the demands of making data publicly accessible.
  • This process is a large undertaking . Prior to the event, it is important to be realistic in allocating staff time, determining the necessary funding and securing sponsorships.
  • Managing expectations for both the public and the agency is imperative.

The Rest of the Story

In June of 2013, the city hosted a hackathon in support of National Day of Civic Hacking. The National Day of Civic Hacking is a public-private-people partnership backed by the White House through the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Palo Alto designed the hackathon to be a festival-like block party to which the city invited engineers, software developers, designers, entrepreneurs and community members. 

The event featured local bands, technology displays and a challenge. Interested “hackers” were invited to use “open data” to create innovative solutions and software to help the city tackle a variety of local civic challenges. The open data consisted of a variety of non-confidential data sets ranging from budgets, to geographical and census data.  

The hackathon is an extension of the city’s efforts to use open data to improve transparency and community engagement. 

The city also uses open data to engage the public in the local budgeting process. In 2012, the city launched a beta version of its online Open Budget Tool on the city’s website. The Open Budget Tool allows residents to view the current budget and financial data dating back to 2009 in an easy and interactive way. The tool allows users to analyze data and create their own budgeting scenarios with just a few clicks of the mouse. Using a filtering menu, users can interact with the data and create charts and graphs to represent the information in a variety of ways. The tool even allows users to suggest a data set to be included in future updates of the software.  

The City of Palo Alto hopes the interactive, online budgeting tool will help the city connect with a new and younger audience while providing greater understanding of local decision making. 

Resources to Learn More

Palo Alto Open Data Initiative

Palo Alto Open Budget Tool

Palo Alto Civic Day of Hacking

Palo Alto Budget Program

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