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ASHEVILLE — When Asheville City Council discusses the city’s operational budget, some $154 million in proposed spending is currently on the table. With a free online application that crunches the numbers in user-friendly ways, both elected officials and city residents can have additional means of weeding through the budget maze.
The Asheville Budget Explorer, now in its second iteration, was launched before last year’s budgeting process. The new version has added features and a higher profile, as a cadre of local programmers has increasingly turned its attention to promoting open government in the city.
With the app, users can click through proposed spending totals by city departments and see breakdowns of where the money is slated to go. It gives data that can seem buried in lengthy paper reports and spreadsheets a visual representation that can be quickly navigated.
The site was built using a free, open-source platform developed by local “civic tech” startup DemocracyApps, which enlisted the help of volunteers from Code for Asheville and the Asheville Coders League.
Eric Jackson, co-founder of DemocracyApps, said city of Asheville staff provided crucial assistance as well. And the city has promoted the app online during the current budget cycle.
“What drew me to the budget is that it’s complicated and it’s hard and it’s boring, for most people,” Jackson told Carolina Public Press. “At the same time, it’s so incredibly important. So how do we take that and find ways to bring it to citizens in a way that is accessible?”
In addition, he said, municipalities outside Asheville could benefit from having such a tool available.
“What we’re building is a kind of WordPress for government budgets,” he said, referencing a popular, customizable web-publishing platform. No less than the city of Raleigh has used the early version of the platform to present its budget, and it might go on to use the new platform this year.
The project is still under development and open to changes.
“What’s there now, I consider to be kind of the first baby step,” Jackson said. “It’s a start.”
He stressed that the data presented thus far is intended to start a dialog that will take a while to fully develop. Additional tweaks to the platform could make it easier for citizens, journalists, activists and city staffers to start discussions about the budget earlier in the process, when there’s a viable chance to shift public money around, Jackson said, adding that he welcomes user feedback.
To weigh in on how the app does or doesn’t work for you, visit this page and comment.