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How Philadelphia Utilizes Place-Based Budgeting for Social Justice

The city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, like many other local governments, has been dependent on spreadsheets for decades when preparing its annual capital budget. Meaningful analysis of available data is difficult when it arrives in a format of several thousand spreadsheets.

When the city appointed its new budget director, Marisa Waxman, she came with a vision of doing away with spreadsheets and hoped to create a new system that would make data open and transparent for citizens. The public wanted to see where investments were being made in different locations around the city and identify neighborhoods that needed greater support.

Also at play were growing calls for social justice and the need to take steps to provide greater justice for all. In Philadelphia, city leaders decided to use a lens of equity when examining annual budgets and where city dollars have been allocated.


The arrival of Waxman provided Philadelphia an important opportunity to innovate and try out new protocols as a first step in moving to place-based budgeting. Waxman saw the value of the proposed change early on, which made programming for social justice possible. Ultimately, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to participate in a pilot program before converting to a full place-based budgeting protocol.

The city introduced CityGeo as its first open data program. CityGeo collects, maintains and shares data and information — geographic data, program and financial data — with residents and other stakeholders in the city. The city has over 300 datasets and intends to make the data open and transparent for everyone. The pilot has evolved into a spatial model that is very dynamic and can be adapted for multiple purposes.

The city has three main goals for the pilot: 1) determine where money and resources have been spent in the city, 2) compare CityGeo data with other demographic and economic data over time to identify neighborhoods in need of assistance, 3) prove that the city could take one program area like parks and recreation and use that data to go back 20 years or more to determine where capital investment dollars have been made over time.

The city had several challenges and milestones to address before launching the app. They included verifying the data was clean and ready for analysis, responding to the needs of stakeholders and being very conscious of avoiding scope creep.

Most services offered by cities and counties are location-based, such as where an accident occurred or a city tree was taken down by a storm. The visual representation of what’s being spent and where it has been spent offers a new level of understanding where needs are greatest within the community.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “How Data-Driven Performance Powers Smart Communities.” Download the full report here.

Photo credit: Prasad Panchakshari on Unsplash

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