By Justin Lowe
Financial forecasting and comparative budget analysis are important tools for municipal governments and are included among the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) best practices for budget preparation. Both the GFOA and the Government Accounting Standards Board provide guidance on the proper use of these methods, highlighting their utility and discussing some of the data-related concerns. They emphasize that the results from these approaches, like any other form of quantitative or analytical modeling, rely on access to appropriate data. One of the challenges that goes unmentioned is the acquisition and preparation of the data - a critical and time-consuming step in the analysis process. The New Hampshire Public Finance Consortium (NHPFC) maintains their public web portal for exactly this purpose, providing free access to an expanding number of municipal datasets to help users overcome this challenge.
Limited modeling, such as basic forecasting, can be performed without access to data beyond that which is stored in a government’s own records. However, this type of “isolated” modeling can lead to “improper conclusions”, the GFOA warns. To improve forecast models and to engage in any type of meaningful comparative analysis, municipal governments must look beyond their own data; they must consider data from similar municipalities and include various supplementary datasets and econometrics.
In New Hampshire, most of this data is considered “open data” and is made available by various state agencies and indexed on the New Hampshire Department of Information Technology’s Open Source and Open Data site (https://www.nh.gov/doit/open-source/) with the intention that it be available for anyone to use without restriction. However, the task of aggregating and organizing the data into a usable form often requires various technical and data analysis skills and both familiarity with, and access to, appropriate software tools. This creates an “artificial restriction”effectively reducing the accessibility of the data for many people.
There are several for-profit, private sector companies that offer services which address the need for accessible data. They offer public portals and tools at various price points that allow users to access and analyze public data. When considering whether to purchase these services, it is important to understand that in most cases the primary product is the service and accompanying tools, with data access simply an ancillary benefit. This has the effect of replacing the barriers of time and skill with one of cost; the pricing models limit the adoption of these services, either placing them out of reach of smaller municipalities or making it difficult to justify for those simply looking to provide data access without the need for additional services. With limited adoption among municipalities, the issues of compartmentalization and decentralization of the data across many sites remains an issue. Here, the NHPFC saw an opportunity to overcome these barriers by providing a state-wide resource for municipal financial data.
The Consortium contacted Axiomatic, a Portsmouth-based firm responsible for managing the NHDRA’s Municipal Tax Rate Setting Portal (MTRSP) and Assessment Web Portal, to develop an improved site at no additional cost to either the municipal governments or the public. In 2016, the NHPFC re-launched their public web portal at www.NHPFC.org, with a new interface and an improved data model. The portal provides local governments in New Hampshire and the public with free, convenient access to a centralized resource for state-wide municipal finance data that would otherwise be spread across numerous municipal websites, stored in various financial software systems, or simply inaccessible without significant time and effort.
The new NHPFC site obtains municipal financial data directly from the NHDRA’s MTRSP database, providing public access to standardized financial data from every municipality in the state. Axiomatic built custom extract, transform, and load (ETL) processes to import, re-organize, and re-structure the financial data and supplement it with data from other sources, such as demographics from the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning and unemployment figures from the New Hampshire Department of Employment Security, to ensure that the datasets can be continually updated. The aggregated data can then be displayed on sample graphs available on the site or downloaded as an easy-to-use CSV text file, allowing users to jump directly into their analysis work. The portal itself was re-built to ensure that it is accessible and usable across a greater range of devices - from desktop and laptop computers to tablets and smartphones.
The NHPFC and Axiomatic were also concerned with transparency, an often-overlooked aspect of providing access to data. Transparency in both data and the analysis process is just as important as the results when presenting findings or justifying decisions. For this reason, the NHPFC.org data model was designed to store metadata - information about the data itself – to provide documentation about where the original data came from, the date it was retrieved or imported, and any number of other details or limitations which would be important for users to be aware of when determining if the data is appropriate for their analysis.
In addition to providing improved access to the data, the site also features several pre-defined graphs, allowing users to visualize common comparisons and financial trends. With only a few mouse clicks, users can generate a graph and save it as a high-quality image which can be placed directly into reports and presentations. As new datasets are added to the model and new feedback is received from users, new graphs are made available.
Effective fiscal policy-making relies on informed decision-making supported by rigorous analysis, which, in turn, must be built on a foundation of sound data. This is the purpose of NHPFC.org – to remove the barriers preventing access to that data and to make it easily available for anyone who wishes to use it. With continued feedback and support from the community the site will remain a valuable resource, adapting and expanding as needed to meet the needs of its users.
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