CTHRU aims to unlock potential of open data in Mass. government

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/09/06/cthru-aims-to-unlock-potential-of-open-data-in-mass-government/

STATE HOUSE — Massachusetts Comptroller Thomas Shack is poised to give anyone interested the opportunity to take a closer look at the digital innards of state government with a new transparency website aptly called CTHRU.

Rather than going the traditional procurement route, Shack has taken the innovation vibe and run with it, choosing to enter into a subscription with a company called Socrata that takes a no-frills approach to serving up public information on state spending and payroll in a user-friendly manner.

The site, set to go live on Sept. 14, was assembled from start to finish this year and the subscription cost – $175,000 to $200,000 per year – is less than what the state might have paid a vendor as part of a long-term, customized contract.

“This would have cost millions for us to procure, would have taken us years to create, and would have required a very significant procurement team,” Shack said. “In this case it took the comptroller and his five deputies seven months and less than $200,000 a year.”

In an interview with the News Service, Shack and Deputy Comptroller Kathy Sheppard provided an overview of the site and predicted users would find it more useful and appealing than the state’s Open Checkbook site, which Shack said suffers from limitations because it is rooted in outdated technology dating back to the early 2000s.

The new site, he said, is “unlike anything that any other state has done” providing regularly updated spending and payroll information, with an unprecedented level of detail.

Functional on smartphones as well as personal computers, CTHRU will have benefits for classes of people. Reporters and public interest groups will be able to directly access information they can’t easily obtain currently. Workers who field records requests might see fewer of them as people obtain information themselves. And government employees with fiscal, administrative and payroll responsibilities will have a new resource to quickly check information.

“We’ve literally cut out not just the middle man, we’ve cut out a whole group and a layer of bureaucracy around those public records requests that is going to allow just free access and open access to the data and that is what makes us, both the comptroller’s office and Massachusetts, unique,” Shack said.

Featuring data dating back to fiscal 2010, updated at least weekly and including information about government vendors, the site will enable analysts to track trends and changes and includes export, filtering, worksheet and visualization options. Users can determine in which cities and towns the state is spending its money, for instance, as well as out-of-state expenditure locations.

“The other piece of the importance of this system is making sure that we are meeting the challenges associated with an open data era, which has also been largely ignored by state governments. We think that open data and having the public’s eyes and public’s resources brought to bear on our data will be useful,” Shack said. “It’ll be useful from making sure that we’re avoiding fraud and waste and abuse. We also think it’s useful from a data analytics standpoint, and to do things that we don’t even know we can do yet.”

The portal could also become a play-set for data analytics students in higher education, said Shack, challenging students to come up with ways to use data that is useful to the Commonwealth and expressing hope that he might lure some of those students to work in the comptroller’s office.

“We’re surrounded by terrific public and private institutions of higher education and higher learning. I’m very excited to see what comes out of their data analytics programs from an education standpoint, and some of the creative aspects of what our millennial students are doing with data that will help us folks who are in senior leadership within state government to see what comes out of it from a useful standpoint,” he said. “With their own data development, I think this is going to be an attractive thing to them.”

The state’s new public records law takes effect Jan. 1, 2017 and requires the comptroller’s office to maintain data security and integrity functions, including efforts to protect identifying information about state employees. Shack said he takes that responsibility seriously, but also noted that CTHRU does not include any “personally identifiable information or sensitive information.”

“We control every bit of data that goes up to the system,” Shack said. “Every piece of information that’s in the system is both public information and information that if you requested it of my office I would be required to provide to you. That was the goal here.”

The system encompasses spending beyond the line items in the state budget, which is approaching $40 billion, and includes allocations from capital and trust accounts. For instance, it features information from about 3 million transactions in fiscal 2015, adding up to $57.61 billion in government expenditures.

The system will be expanded to deal with budgetary issues and state contracts. “This is a highly expandable system and this is our first iteration,” Shack said.

Shack plans to demonstrate the new system for the media at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7 in the comptroller’s office on the ninth floor of Ashburton Place in Boston.

— Written by Michael P. Norton

Copyright State House News Service