New web app shows how your taxes are broken down

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Lucas Ames, creator of Smart Cville, hopes to leverage technology to make Charlottesville a better place to live. Photo by Ron Paris Lucas Ames, creator of Smart Cville, hopes to leverage technology to make Charlottesville a better place to live. Photo by Ron Paris

Tackling a county budget may seem daunting, but Smart Cville tactfully lays out Albemarle’s budget in a spread of colors with its new budget visualization tool that illustrates how your money helps the county.

Smart Cville, a locally based nonprofit, aims to open up data, plain and simple. Creator Lucas Ames, 35, sent out a letter in mid-April requesting that Charlottesville adopt an open data resolution. In mid-June, the mayor convened a meeting to discuss open data as the city continues its work to further improve open-data relations between city legislatures and citizens.

“One of the reasons we are most excited about this visualization launch is that it provides the community with a good example of how citizen innovators can use technology to help solve public problems,” says Ames. “If we think back 15 or 20 years, citizens simply did not have the tools to engage with their communities in this way.”

The app helps the public understand the origin of the county’s revenues and how those revenues are allocated. Users are able to input their property taxes and fees into the website and get a complete breakdown of how the county uses their money.

Aesthetics are a fundamental element in visual learning that subsequently helps memory and data absorption. According to the Social Science Research Network, 65 percent of humans are visual learners. So, when visuals such as graphs that incorporate color, interaction and other maneuverable elements are added to mundane black and white charts, data literacy naturally improves.

“This site enables our citizens to explore county budget information and drill down into detailed spending and revenue data to clearly illustrate how the budget supports important county services,” says Lori Allshouse, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Big data, often misconstrued as something that is difficult to grasp, isn’t as bad as it seems, according to Ames.

In terms of big data, the sky’s the limit as to how it can be used when aggregated with other communities,” says Ames.

Ames says that he and his team are committed to improving the budget visualization tool and are working with the City of Charlottesville to expand the tool to incorporate all funds. The team also has a few projects in the works in the areas of environmental sustainability and legal equity.

“As more communities open budget data, it could foster cross-municipality research that analyzes fiscal strategies,” Ames tells C-VILLE.

Those who are interested may access the budget visualization tool here.

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