Flint, MI Develops Open Data Standards To Improve Financial Transparency

The city of Flint, MI will be working with researchers at the University of Michigan to develop new open-data standards to improve the city’s financial transparency.

“Financial transparency is essential to a healthy, responsive, and inclusive city government,” Robert Widigan, Flint’s chief financial officer, said in a press release. “This partnership with the University of Michigan will position the city of Flint as a national leader in local government open data technology.”

The study will examine if implementing a modern fiscal reporting system could help decrease the likelihood of disasters caused by making decisions during an emergency situation. The city has been faced with a water crisis since 2014, when financial managers switched its source of drinking water to the lead-contaminated Flint River. A study conducted in 2017 concluded that Flint’s emergency manager “made key decisions that seem to have contributed to the crisis,” in an attempt to save the city money. The researchers plan to examine the past 20 years of the city’s fiscal reporting to see what differences a modern data standard could’ve made.

The city plans to base the system on a software standard called Extensive Business Reporting Language (XBRL). XBRL is already used by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as by various agencies in 60 countries around the world. The system is designed to make it easy to compile and share financial data, and the project also plans to consult with the state treasury to ensure that the transition to the new open data standard is seamless.

The project is funded through a $120,000 grant to the university from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The funding will be used to train city staff on the new system and migrate Flint’s financial data from where it currently sits inside PDFs to XBRL-based reports.

“This project ultimately is about improving a community’s quality of life, because as local fiscal information becomes more available, a greater number of stakeholders will have eyes on the data and be able to act on potential problems long before they turn into crises,” said Tom Ivacko, the executive director of university’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, said.