Idaho’s deep dive on data

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press State Controller Brandon Woolf unveils a major upgrade to his Transparent Idaho website, transparent.idaho.gov Wednesday at Coeur d’Alene City Hall.

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    From left, Deputy Controller Chris Strow, Program Specialist Mackenzie Smith, State Controller Brandon Woolf and Chief of Staff Josh Joshua Whitworth are the brains behind Idaho's Transparent Idaho website. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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    Sophia Aldous, left, editor for the Gem State Miner, and Don Gronning, news editor of The Miner newspaper, learn about Transparent Idaho's new website Wednesday at Coeur d'Alene City Hall. (LOREN BENOIT/press)

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press State Controller Brandon Woolf unveils a major upgrade to his Transparent Idaho website, transparent.idaho.gov Wednesday at Coeur d’Alene City Hall.

  • 1

    From left, Deputy Controller Chris Strow, Program Specialist Mackenzie Smith, State Controller Brandon Woolf and Chief of Staff Josh Joshua Whitworth are the brains behind Idaho's Transparent Idaho website. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • 2

    Sophia Aldous, left, editor for the Gem State Miner, and Don Gronning, news editor of The Miner newspaper, learn about Transparent Idaho's new website Wednesday at Coeur d'Alene City Hall. (LOREN BENOIT/press)

Suggestions wanted

For questions about or suggestions for the current or future Transparent Idaho website, transparent.idaho.gov, email transparentidaho@sco.idaho.gov.

COEUR d'ALENE — Idaho is opening its books — wider than ever — on your funds.

State Controller Brandon Woolf on Wednesday unveiled a major upgrade to his Transparent Idaho website — transparent.idaho.gov — that will include "checkbook level" spending, graphics and improved research tools. The upgrade is expected to go live by June 1.

"We're changing the culture on transparency, and it's starting with our office," Woolf told reporters during a presentation at Coeur d'Alene City Hall.

Because all state expenditures roll through Woolf's department, it's at the center of the state's financial data.

"It's the citizens' money, and they have the right to know how their money is spent," Woolf said.

With a few clicks, residents will be able to review state data, with charts, on everything from which agency spent the most on pizza to who has the highest salaries in each county to what vendors are most often used for services. The data is updated daily.

Woolf said his department didn't hire any additional staff for the upgrade. His office's annual fee for the tool will be $125,000, which Woolf argues will pay for itself many times over due to efficiencies that result from shining the light on funds and trends.

As a fan of transparency, the upgrade has Woolf howling.

The upgrade will deter government fraud, increase accountability, restore public trust and assist policymakers with decisions, he said.

"When something is dark, people think there may be a conspiracy behind it," he said. "If we can shine that light into those corners, we can take that away."

Woolf said the upgrade is also in response to a study by the nonpartisan nonprofit Pew Resarch Center that states confidence in government nationwide is at an all-time low.

The initiative will be an upgrade to the Transparent Idaho site released in 2012. The current site has data in PDF format, whereas the future site will be more interactive and feature deeper data.

For example, specific vendor companies are currently not revealed, but that information and much more will be available with the new rollout. Handy historical data will also be accessible.

With such an overhaul, there's been mixed reaction among state agencies.

Woolf said leaders of one agency believed much more information is confidential than it actually is, so it's taken correspondence to get that sorted out prior to the release of the upgrade.

"Some of the resistance was just being nervous at first about sharing," said Joshua Whitworth, Woolf's chief of staff. "Once they realize that the information is sharable by law, they're fine."

Woolf said an employee of another agency didn't realize that pay rates of state employees have been posted at the current site for the past six years.

Woolf's vision for a transparent Idaho doesn't stop with state government. His long-term vision is that county and local governments, as well as school districts, join the movement, so citizens can access such deep data at those levels as well in one location.

Woolf said such conversations with officials at other levels of government have started.

As with any mound of data, there are caution flags.

Whitworth used an example of a reporter in another state who discovered state funds were spent on Victoria’s Secret. However, upon further review, it was revealed that Victoria’s Secret simply owned a billboard which the state used for advertising.

On the pizza example, if "pizza" is used in the search tool, company names without the word "pizza" in them won't be a part of the data that's revealed. However, technology could eventually work out such kinks.

The new site will be launched in cooperation with OpenGov, a leading national government transparency software developer.

Woolf said he believes only two other states, West Virginia and Ohio, are providing data at the level Idaho will. Other levels of government have started to join the system in Ohio, he said.

"We will be at the leading edge of technology," said Woolf, adding that he developed a passion for transparency dating back 23 years ago, when he started at the Controller's Office as an intern.

Don Gronning, news editor of The Miner newspaper in Newport, Wash., said after the presentation that the upgrade is appreciated by the newspaper industry because it oftentimes struggles to obtain public information from government agencies.

"It's excellent in terms of commitment to transparency," he said, adding that he hopes Washington implements a similar site so the newspaper can compare data on both sides of the state line.

Woolf said the intent of the upgrade is not a "gotcha" on specific employees or agencies. It's simply allowing citizens to have access to how their funds are spent.

"We're truly trying to help change a culture," he said.

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