A ‘fiscal observatory’: Meet Espacios Abiertos’ new digital platform

By John McPhaul

Aware of the difficulties that citizens face in inserting themselves into government debates and decisions on fiscal and budget issues, the non-profit organization Open Spaces (Espacios Abiertos in Spanish) analyzed thousands of documents from the past 16 years to develop the new digital platform, which seeks to provide greater accessibility and narrow the information gaps.

Daniel Santamaría Ots, senior analyst for Open Spaces (OS) public policy, said Wednesday that the new tool is an interactive digital repository of information, initially on the budget and, gradually during this year, it will include the issues of debt, municipal finances and economic recovery.

In terms of the budget, the platform includes graphs where users can access historical data (from 2006 to the present) of income and expenses that can be viewed by 34 subject areas, 133-170 agencies, or 878 programs.

The OS team analyzed and manually entered 41,740 individual fields from about 2,128 documents, divided by: 24,677 budget expense entries, 7,652 budget entry entries, and 9,411 budget program entries. The search combinations that the interactive panel allows are innumerable. Documents can be downloaded for future reference in image formats (PNG) or to work on (CSV).

Portal topics are addressed through guiding questions and timelines are also included to locate important dates.

“Through the Fiscal Observatory we provide clear information to answer those questions that people have about the use of the money they pay in contributions and taxes and that many times they do not find an answer,” Santamaría Ots said. “Our goal is for more people to learn about these issues and to be able to participate in the debate and decision-making.”

The economist added that the information analyzed and the entries in the website begin in 2006 because the current economic crisis in Puerto Rico began that year.

“At a time when the discussion of the budget process between the governor, the [Financial Oversight and Management] Board and the Legislative Assembly begins, we have no doubt that this platform will be a very useful tool for experts and academics as well as for the ordinary citizen, and that it can be an instrument for a conscientious debate on government revenue, its commitments and public spending,” he said.

“We invite citizens to examine these public processes in the government and to present their questions to us to continue adding answers and layers of information to the platform,” Santamaría Ots said, noting that also contains a section of 38 suggested readings in Spanish and English on the four main topics discussed on the platform.

“At Open Spaces we want to continue creating new opportunities to promote greater fiscal transparency of government efforts and that facilitate citizens’ access to information on what is done in government with the money it receives from taxpayers. People have the right to know and decide whether or not they agree with the decisions,” said OS Executive Director Cecille Blondet. “Making the government’s economic issues transparent has been a routine practice for decades in many jurisdictions in the United States and in other countries. Our goal is to change the culture of opacity that has been cultivated in Puerto Rico.”

The OS employees who contributed to the project were: María Cristina Moreno, María Mercedes Rodríguez, Alexis López and Santamaría Ots.

Also participating were students from the OS internship program, Fabiola Castillo (New York University) and Joaquín García (University of Puerto Rico). The design of the new website was by the artist César Sesio and the programming by Leonardo Saltamerenda.

The platform was developed with input from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Metabolic Studio of the Annenberg Foundation.

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