Philadelphia just published its $4 billion checkbook for all to see

Oooooh, all the stories we’re gonna find in this data — and you can help.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Remember the “missing $33 million” that had Philly taxpayers up in arms last year? And how the figure then dropped to $23 million, then $2 million, until all but $528,000 was accounted for as of January?

Next time that happens, you should be able to do some of the math yourself.

In a move that’s likely to garner accolades from good government groups, Mayor Jim Kenney has opened up the city’s checkbook, revealing most — though not all — of its inky detail.

On Friday, the administration released more than $4 billion worth of payments made in the city’s ledger for the fiscal year 2017. It’s only a year’s worth of data so far, but the city hopes to have 2018 information available later this year, and it’s set to be updated annually going forward.

Even more important, the data is fully searchable via a new database. Previously, residents and members of the press had to file records requests to see line-item payouts of this kind, a roadblock that also made the big picture hard to come by.

“Payments data were designed in a way that was never meant to be released to the public,” said Mark Wheeler, chief information officer for the city. In other words, the city’s bookkeeping system was initially created for internal accounting — and wouldn’t make sense to most non-accountants.

All told, Philly’s new index is nearly a quarter million lines of spending data from more than 60 agencies. The unprecedentedly large dataset won’t answer all your questions — and it won’t necessarily add up exactly to the budget, per Catherine Lamb, deputy finance director — but it’s a solid start.

The digging also starts now. Find a payment that looks suspicious? Send a tip to max@billypenn.com.

What the data includes

While there are some exceptions, this is essentially a massive line-item report, where each line represents a single payment made from the city.

The gist of what information you’ll see:

  • Name of the vendor who received the money
  • Rough description of what was purchased
  • Date the purchase was made or paid for
  • Total transaction amount
  • Contract number (where applicable)

That last piece of info is notable, because it makes city contracts much easier to track down. For years, regular and contract payments have been housed in separate databases. Now, you can see exactly how much the city pays every company it does business with — and what work was done.

The searchablility is key. Type in “sandwiches” and you’ll get a few dozen expenses for meals for “prisoners” at Philly’s Family Court. “Alcohol testing” sheds some light on the police department’s annual work with a Horsham-based toxicology lab. You can also enter the name of an office, like “District Attorney,” and scroll through its ledger.

Similar to previous open data releases, there are some pre-made visualizations that allow you to filter by department or other criteria.

The data also includes American Express travel vouchers, petty cash withdrawals and reimbursements to city employees or agencies — which should cover work-related travel costs.

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Screenshot of the new payments data navigator

What it doesn’t include

City officials said the dataset presented a unique challenge. Some payments the city makes need to remain confidential. When they began sorting the data last year, the Law Department identified sensitive information that couldn’t be disclosed.

About 8,000 line-item records have been kept out of the database so far, a number that equates to about 3 percent of the total. In the city’s language, records withheld include:

  • Payments to individuals for social services. This largely involves payments paid to foster parents, officials say.
  • Payments which would harm public safety activities if made public. This is a catch-all provision used by many law enforcement agencies to avoid disclosing details of their budget. Officials clarified that these deal mostly with “witness fees,” where the name of the recipient could jeopardize their safety. It also includes certain payments related criminal investigations and “secure locations” for emergency planning projects.
  • Payments which would harm the City’s legal interests if released. Notably, it seems the city has redacted some legal settlements made by the Law Department. However, the dollar amount of any taxpayer-funded payouts is still obtainable under Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know Law.
  • Payments otherwise made confidential by law.

Sensitive or not, officials say the financial figures will still viewable. Search “foster treatment care” in the new database, for example, and you’ll find dozens of bottom-line payments to various agencies — albeit with fewer details than some of the other items.

Officials say the Office of Innovation and Technology will attempt to automate the data to upload annually. Fiscal year 2018 payment data should be up by the end of the year.

Weird codes? There’s a legend for that

If you’re combing through the data, you’ll see 14 acronyms that explain some of various payment types, and they have oddly specific criteria:

PCXX – petty cash
PVAT – court appointed attorneys
PVFA – funeral applicants
PVFD – funeral directors
PVFG – foster grandparents
PVFL – library books
PVFM – auto parts
PVFP – foster parents
PVMD – professional services
PVOS – monthly rent and quarterly MH/MR
PVTR – American Express travel vouchers
PVXX – payment voucher
RPXX – reimbursable expense vouchers for City employees
VCXX – procurement

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