Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the City’s “capital projects”. These projects create, maintain and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use everyday, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. They cost the city approximately $10 billion a year or approximately 12% of the annual budget. What are these projects and how can you find out about them? Not easily.
To inspect the City’s capital budget, you’ll need to visit the “January 2017 Financial Plan” on New York City’s website. There you’ll find the “Capital Budget” and the “Capital Commitment Plan,” which come in 4 PDF “volumes” containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall. Why is all this information on paper instead of a spreadsheet or a database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.
Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets…and spreadsheets into web applications. A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.
What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on the “Capital Project Dashboard” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions”.
Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now THAT’S the types of transparency we should expect from our City government!