Understanding COINS by Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is the Lead Researcher on Where Does My Money Go? an independent non-partisan project run by the Open Knowledge Foundation to analyze and visualize UK public spending. Where Does My Money Go? makes government spending and finances understandable to the general public, and, in particular, aims to show each of us where each pound of our taxes goes. Here she talks about understanding COINS... Something amazing has happened since the government spending recorded in the COINS database was made openly available to everyone. I'm talking about the impressive range of free, and in many cases open source, products to display the COINS data. So far there are COINS search engines from The Guardian and The Open Knowledge Foundation, graphs from Rapid Gate Way and Alpine Interactive and bloggers like Martin Budden have been powering away on their own projects to describe the COINS data. What a triumph for publishing government data. It beats the alternative of using public funds to pay for these tools when the skills and enthusiasm are clearly out there in the community. That's not to say that the products to display the data are complete right now, or that we have understood the COINS data completely. We had a few clues about the structure of the data from previous research, but there is no substitute for having the data itself, and we are still building up our knowledge. But given it's been just over a week since we first laid eyes on the data, I think it's fair to say that we are making good progress by most IT project standards. In this post I want to address two questions that drive our thinking at the Open Knowledge Foundation, since the COINS publication. They are: 'what's important in COINS?' and 'how do we get meaningful results out of it?' It has taken some discussion with the exceptionally helpful staff at HM Treasury and reading the COINS Guidance and other related materials that make more sense now we can see the data -- but finally I feel we more accurate answers to both of these questions. What's important in COINS? The COINS Guidance lists every field in the version of COINS that was released. One of the big challenges with a big complicated data set, like COINS, is knowing which of these fields are important. To determine this I've spoken with the Treasury team about the fields they consider most useful, and the combination of fields they use most frequently. The answers I got focused mainly on the central government spending and income data. The spending and income is described for each central government department. Each department has a number of programmes that will either require or generate money. The department's programmes are in the 'programmes object group description' part of COINS, and more detail still is in the 'programme objects description', and yet more detail still is in the 'account codes' which are all listed in Annex B. The 'Value' field tells the actual spending or income in thousands of pounds. If the number is positive it refers to the departments spending, if negative it refers to the department's income. It should also be able to check if the amount is spending or income from the 'account code'. In addition to the spending programme and 'account code' information, there are two further categories in COINS that describe the data very usefully, those are: - 'budget boundary'. There are three choices for 'budget boundary':

  1. DEL which stands for Departmental Expenditure Limits. These are items that have been budgeted for 3 years, it is estimated that DEL makes up about 80% of the items in COINS.
  2. AME which stands for Annually Managed Expenditure. These are the budget items that are difficult to predict accurately and the risk for these is taken by the Exchequer as a whole. We are ignoring everything in AME where the 'Programme /admin' is not set to 'Other'.
  3. 'not DEL/AME' is budgeting for arm.s length bodies -- we are not too concerned about these budget items.

- the 'resource capital'. There are two options that are both useful for 'resource capital' which are

  1. 'capital' which is investment and capital assets.
  2. 'resource' which includes all wages, salaries and operating costs.

There are some parts of COINS that we are less concerned with at the moment. Other than the expenditure and income data, there are plans and estimates in COINS. You can see plans and estimates that should roughly correspond to the supplementary budget information and the supply estimates respectively. We have been less concerned with plans and estimates as, by their nature, they will be less detailed than the outturn. There is a CPID code in COINS which is there for a special project within the Treasury called the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA). This project will ensure that there is no double counting of the money when a transaction occurs between government departments. As I understand it, if body A gives money to body B then WGA would be responsible for subtracting the amount body B received from body A's total. There are scripts in COINS to 'best guess' these subtractions using the CPID code, along with the WGA staff performing lots of checks too, but once this matching has been successful the CPID code is largely redundant. The Whole of Government Accounts also collects information about spending by local authorities and records this spending in COINS, but this is not in a publishable state. However it is possible to view central government grants for local authorities with the field called 'Local Government Use only'. How do I get meaningful results out of COINS? On the advice of the Treasury guidance we are focusing on the Fact Table more than the Adjustment Table in COINS. In the fact table the field that defines actual spending and income is the 'Data_type' being set to 'Outturn' and 'Data_subtype' being set to 'approved' or = submitted_outturn (both of these conditions required). In addition we can set Budget_Boundary to either DEL or if we require the shorter term budget spending then we set AME and then set programme/admin to 'Other'. We can also set the Resource_capital2: set to Resource (on 2010-11 budgeting basis); With the COINS data defined this way it is then possible look at the spending programmes and associated account codes certain that the results are actual spending and actual income for the time frame, rather than estimated or planned spending or income. It is wonderful that the publication of COINS has brought so much innovation in the open software community. It will be even more wonderful if we can continue to develop to make public spending data easier to understand, particularly when so many important decisions are being made that will affect our lives.

1 comment

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Lisa, very interesting article. I have had little knowledge of COINS but your article made it a lot more understandable for me. Thanks again.

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