School of Cities / News

Visualizing Ontario’s Municipal Finance Data: U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance Launches Data Visualization Pilot Project

By Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance (IMFG)

The Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the Institute without Boundaries (IwB) at George Brown College have worked together on a data visualization pilot project that brings municipal finance data to life. Leveraging the municipal finance expertise of IMFG and the design experience of the IwB and School of Design at George Brown College, this collaborative project is intended to create new interest in municipal finance data, enhance its accessibility, and introduce new and creative ways to shed light on the chosen topics.

From June–August 2017, IMFG will publish three visualizations in this pilot project. The first of these visualizations, released on June 1, 2017, focuses on residential property taxes: the bedrock of local finances. A common perception is that property taxes are rising quickly, but the reality is quite different once inflation is taken into account.

Property taxes account for more than 97% of total tax revenues for local governments in Canada. According to most economists, it is a good tax for many reasons: property is immovable, and property taxes are visible, economically efficient, and clearly tied to local spending.

But the property tax is unpopular and difficult to increase or reform. It is often the focal point in city council debates about budgets and finances. This unpopularity stems in part from the tax’s visibility. Most homeowners know exactly how much they pay in property taxes – they get a bill in the mail every year. In contrast, sales taxes are paid in small increments with every purchase and for those who are on wages and salaries, income tax is withheld from every paycheque, making these taxes less visible.

This collaborative data visualization pilot project was developed by the Institute on Municipal Finance & Governance and the Institute without Boundaries in consultation with a variety of stakeholders from municipal finance, planning, and public policy. In this photo, Luigi Ferrara leads a design charrette workshop in January 2017.

Over the course of summer 2017, IMFG will release two more visualizations that examine the state of municipal assets in Ontario, and a prototype dashboard that enables users to compare revenues, expenses, debt charges and the state of infrastructure across municipalities and over time.

“Exploring how to visualize municipal finance data furthers IMFG’s mandate to spark and inform public debate,” says IMFG Director Enid Slack.  “We are always looking for new ways to engage the academic and policy communities around important issues of municipal finance and governance.”

The data visualization pilot project can be viewed on IMFG’s website.