ASHEVILLE—The Buncombe County annual budget now has it own app, thanks to local “civic tech” startup DemocracyApps, which launched the program last week after creating a similar one for Asheville over the past two years.

The Buncombe app, available at this website, is similar, in many respects, to the Asheville app, though it adds a new feature, a schools budget page.

The objective of the application is to make the budget easier for the public and local government staffers to navigate, understand and discuss, said Eric Jackson, DemocracyApps co-founder.

With the free, interactive app, users can delve into categories of county spending as proposed in this year’s budget, and compare numbers with those from prior years.

Jackson said that the Buncombe app isn’t yet as advanced as its Asheville counterpart, in part because fewer community and governmental partners were involved in producing it, and that it was something of a rush job.

One way of looking at the differences [between the two apps] is that they arise from trying to just work with data already publicly available, as opposed to collaborating with staff” to make the data more presentable, he said. City of Asheville IT staff had assisted with the Asheville version.

“It’s not that Buncombe County wasn’t cooperative; I simply didn’t ask,” Jackson said. “I thought it was an interesting experiment to work only with what was already there, and also more realistic given the time constraints.”

The Buncombe app, he stressed, is therefore a work-in-progress, but it has already provided some lessons. One is that future app developers will need to work with Buncombe County staff to make the budget data more compatible with such efforts.

Jackson was able to use an automated program to extract tables from the county’s budget spreadsheets, he said. But, in the case of the school budgets, he worked with scans of printed materials, so he had to enter those numbers by hand.

“The data prep was moderately painful,” he acknowledged.

Feedback and suggestions for enhancing the app are welcomed, Jackson said. Go here to comment on your experience with it and offer ideas for improvements.

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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