Visualizing the Miami-Dade budget

On a recent Monday night in the expansive open shared coworking space at The LAB Miami in Wynwood, programmers with Code For Miami discussed the open source data projects they’ve spent hours working on. Mauro Perez, a backend developer, and Gregory Johnson, a front end developer, are happy to chat about Miami Graph, their latest passion project, fellow volunteers such as Code for Miami high school intern Keenan Samway.

It’s a whole new way of visualizing the Miami-Dade budget so that anybody can understand it at a glance.

Perez and Johnson have created an interactive sunburst graph in pastel purples, yellows, pinks, blues, and greens, creating a visual representation of how the county is spending its budget. The numbers themselves can seem overwhelmingly indecipherable without context:

  • Public safety — 30% at a cost of $1,409,792,000
  • Neighborhood and infrastructure — 21.7% at a cost of $1,015,912,000
  • Transportation — 22.4% at a cost of $1,049,436,000
  • Health and human services — 9.33% at a cost of $437,880,000
  • General government — 8.08% at a cost of $378,960,000
  • Recreation and culture — 5% at a cost of $236,705,000
  • Economic development — 2.58% at a cost of $121,191,000
  • Policy formation — 0.89% at a cost of $41,741,000

“It’s meant to make the subject matter more accessible,” Perez explained. “My motivation in doing this is to make the information more relevant to people. [Right now] it’s available, but they are not engaging with it.”

Code for Miami’s budget visualization can be found at a new site for visualizations of Miami-Dade County data, miamigraph.com.
A screen shot of the Miami-Dade budget visualization available at miamigraph.com.A screenshot of Code for Miami’s budget visualization, which can be found at a new site for visualizations of Miami-Dade County data, miamigraph.com. (Note: This interactive graphic is best viewed on a desktop computer.)

The possibilities of open data

For Perez and Johnson, creating their budget visualization was an altruistic act of volunteerism, inspired by Code for Miami’s work in the community. A brigade of the civic technology nonprofit Code for America, Code for Miami supports open data and civic hacking. Members include developers, designers, writers, and others interested in using data to improve their community. On top of their weekly Monday meetups at The Lab, they organize local hackathons, bringing together people from across South Florida. Ongoing projects in the works include Miami Answers, a wiki for county services; the digital social services directory Miami Open211; Transit Tracker, which uses open-source hardware and software to track buses, trollies, and other transit vehicles in real-time; and Cute Pets Miami, a Twitter bot to promote pet adoption.

As part of the organization’s strong support of open data, Code for Miami has been pushing the county to release public data in a way that’s useful for programmers and freely available in its entirety in machine-readable formats. Despite its increasing prominence as a tech hub, Miami-Dade lags behind counties and cities across the country in the availability and frequency of accessible public data. Code for Miami has proposed that the county adopt a formal open data policy and create a centralized repository where public data is easily accessible to all.

And they’ve had some success. An open data policy has popped up on several commission agendas — including today’s Economic Prosperity committee meeting — and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has expressed his support for more transparency and open access to county data, putting the county’s proposed $6.8 billion 2016 budget online, where its easily accessible to others. He’s also been hosting an ongoing series of Miami-Dade County Budget town hall meetings, the last of which place on Thursday, August 27, 2015, at 6 p.m. at the West Dade Regional Library.

The budget’s online version comes in three volumes, each one containing over 300 pages of lists, charts, and graphs. It’s a lot of information, and that’s where the work of volunteers and community hacking groups like Code for Miami come in to play.

“I had never seen the data before,” said Perez. “This image is particularly interesting because … you can see parts of the whole. You can see everything in the budget and how they relate to each other.”

Making it easier to be engaged

Perez is neither an activist nor a government watchdog, and he wasn’t particularly familiar with the previous years’ budgets. Instead, he sees himself as a neutral party. Seeing the data altogether like this, he was fascinated by how much was spent on public safety. “I’m interested in putting out tools and resources to make a conversation,” said Perez. “It would be great if people would engage and weigh in on it. They should tweet, share, and like the visualization.”

Johnson & Perez
Gregory Johnson and Mauro Perez at a recent Code for Miami meetup.

A finance major at FIU, Johnson was drawn to the project due to his ease with charts and graphs. Here in Miami, he said, the concept of open data is new, especially as a city not known for technology. They’re hoping the county will open up years further back so they can create other visualizations to compare the data with previous budgets, and have asked for it at town hall meetings.

“It’s nice to see someone cared about the data and made something beautiful,” said Michael Sarasti, program manager of Miami Dade County’s Community Information & Outreach. “To read this, you have to engage with the numbers. I had to do a lot of slicing and dicing to understand what I was reading. It serves the community as a whole, which is ultimately our goal. We want people to understand government.”

Alberto Cairo, who teaches courses on information graphics and visualization at the University of Miami School of Communications, said the visualization is important because it allows viewers to make meaning of the numbers, something a spreadsheet can’t do. The strength of Perez and Johnson’s work, he said, is its interactivity as the viewer creates their own story scrutinizing it. “I feel prompted to explore it,” said Cairo. “I was struck with how little was devoted to culture and economic development.”

Adele Bagley, Chief of Community Engagement for County Commissioner Danielle Cava, hosted a budget workshop in her district recently. Eyeing the visualization, she was surprised that the services that residents associate with government like transit and parks were not the biggest parts of the budget. “I was drawn to the biggest and the tiniest slivers,” Bagley said.

Stuart Kennedy, director of Program Strategy and Innovation at the Miami Foundation, follows the budget closely. But finding specific information in the reams of numbers is often a challenge, a problem Miami Graph solves with style. “Here it took 30 seconds to find what I was looking for,” said Kennedy. “It’s a beautiful visualization.”

“I think this is a nice break from the way the budget is usually displayed,” said Jorge Damian de la Paz, senior policy analyst with the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, who noted an increase for affordable housing. He would like to see a tri-lingual visualization explaining tenants rights.

“Honestly we had no expectations,” said Code For Miami co-captain Cristina Solana. “We wanted to give people free reign to the information. It would be ideal if regular citizens got involved in the budget. It’s important that they have a say in the budget and how the money is spent. For example, we have big transit issues. People should be asking: ‘Does it go back to transit or what?’”

Johnson and Perez hope citizens, residents, journalists, students, and activists probe the visualization.

“Anyone can say I love it or I hate it,” said Johnson. “We look forward to getting some valuable feedback so we can continue building helpful graphs for the community.”

The New Tropic’s co-founder Rebekah Monson is the co-founder and co-captain of Code for Miami. She was not involved in the planning or production of this story.