What a Little HTML Can Do for Open Data

My favourite part of the legislative calendar in Prince Edward Island is the “consideration of the estimates,” a line-by-line review by Members of the Legislative Assembly of the Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue. The Clerk tells me that this exercise is increasingly uncommon in other jurisdictions; I’m happy it’s one that Prince Edward Island has held onto, as the questions from the opposition on government’s spending and revenue often shed interesting light on how and what government is doing, and provide a useful set of critical eyes on an operation that can always benefit from it, no matter the government of the day.

I sat in on the consideration of the estimates for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries yesterday, and I was immediately struck by the degree to which the process remains unelevated by the gifts afforded by digital technology: every question to the Minister was followed by a flurry of page-turning in the marked-up binder he used to guide him, and while he did a creditable job making his way, many questions remained unanswerable, at least immediately, because the answers were filed elsewhere.

This got me thinking that, through the transformative powers of HTML, we could make the Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue a much more navigable guide simply by linking it, internally and externally, with relevant information, information that might even obviate the need for the opposition to ask questions in some cases because the answers would be self-evident. In other words, we could avoid back-and-forths like this (from April 20, 2016):

Hansard Excerpt from April 20, 2016

and this:

Hansard Excerpt from April 20, 2016

and this:

Hansard Excerpt from April 20, 2016

These are all examples of process bottlenecks that could be solved by better information management: a well-indexed, hyperlinked, intelligent Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue web resource would connect the otherwise disconnected dots and allow members to concentrate their discussions on substantive issues, not on “what section is that under?” questions.

Here’s a simple example, of more utility to we the people than to legislators, but one that illustrates what I’m thinking about. Page 10 of this year’s Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue is a table titled “Expenditure Summary by Department” that, in essence, says “here’s how we spend our money.” It’s a high-level summary broken down by department and agency that shows the current budget’s estimate and the previous budget’s estimate and forecast. In the PDF the government releases, it looks like this:

Page 10 of the Estimates

The line items in the first column are an excellent candidate for hyperlinking. Converting the table to HTML (a non-trivial process at present as the structure of the PDF is labyrinthine), it’s then easy to make each department and agency a link to a page on the government website:

Budget Estimate
Budget Forecast
Budget Estimate
Agriculture and Fisheries 32,965,200 34,147,300 34,726,200
Communities, Land and Environment 20,728,600 19,913,500 20,526,200
Economic Development and Tourism 1,137,800 1,092,700 1,187,100
Innovation PEI 32,203,100 33,294,400 25,078,100
Tourism PEI 13,609,100 13,454,400 13,727,500
Education, Early Learning and Culture 250,979,300 245,184,600 243,711,900
Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission 1,200,300 1,200,300 1,200,300
Executive Council 7,244,300 7,098,100 7,334,200
Family and Human Services 96,808,400 95,661,200 94,205,200
Finance 73,852,200 69,525,900 71,886,000
Council of Atlantic Premiers 188,400 188,400 188,400
Employee Benefits 60,138,400 60,612,300 55,429,900
General Government 10,300,000 4,837,000 6,300,000
Health and Wellness 12,547,600 12,536,600 12,540,900
Health PEI 604,664,100 592,843,000 586,431,600
Justice and Public Safety 52,541,700 48,938,000 49,290,300
Transportation, Infrastructure and Energy 111,688,600 104,672,200 108,993,600
Interministerial Women’s Secretariat 438,600 438,600 438,600
Workforce and Advanced Learning 120,690,000 121,498,000 121,831,000
Employment Development Agency 5,231,500 5,206,500 5,231,500
Auditor General 2,028,800 1,911,200 2,056,700
Legislative Assembly 5,992,100 6,422,800 6,422,800
PEI Public Service Commission 7,344,700 7,182,100 7,320,000
PROGRAM EXPENDITURE 1,524,522,800 1,487,859,100 1,476,058,000
Interest Charges on Debt 126,698,100 127,966,400 127,016,400
Amortization of Tangible Capital Assets 68,600,700 66,500,300 65,671,100
TOTAL EXPENDITURE 1,719,821,600 1,682,325,800 1,668,745,500

It would be easy to add intelligence to the estimates so that hovering over any number would provide some additional insights, like (this non-functional mockup):

Estimates Calculator Widget Mockup

Looking under the hood of the Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue PDF file reveals, via metadata, that essentially the same document flow has been in place since fiscal 1996-1997:

PDF info for Estimates file.

In the intervening 20 years we’ve learned so much about how to make information more useful by making it more linked, more navigable, more like a node in a network than an paper enclave.

I move (am I allowed to make motions here?) that for the next fiscal year we set ourselves the goal of crafting a thoroughly modern version of the estimates.


Brad Trivers's picture
Brad Trivers on April 22, 2016 - 08:16 Permalink

I second that motion. What a great basic first step this would be - towards not only efficiency, but better transparency.

I keep talking about exposing data (eg via XML, web API, etc) but, hey, we have to start somewhere!

Brad Trivers's picture
Brad Trivers on April 22, 2016 - 08:19 Permalink

What bugged me even more was during capital budget questioning where the detailed project breakdown was available for summary line items, but the Min of Finance would only release this information verbally when questioned and not publish it! But that could be more of a political problem.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on April 22, 2016 - 09:13 Permalink

Thank you for seconding the motion.

I’d like to think this would be a motion that would receive tri-partisan support, as it’s one that would help the opposition parties in their job, but that would also make Ministers more effective at theirs.