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Data Tool Yields ROI for State Tax Entity

The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration’s work in the area of data visualization won it a federal award and has made the information it houses more accessible to staff and residents alike.

Blue lines of data coming from the top of the image. Black background.
A tool initially created for internal use at the state entity that administers sales, fuel and alcohol taxes proved so popular that it was made available to the public – and won a federal award this summer.

The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration has a great deal of data on hand as the result of administering 37 tax and fee programs, connecting with cities and counties and offering services to permitted businesses. This is public data, accessible via its open data portal, the department told Techwire via email – but its Research and Statistics Section (R&S) “wanted to do more to make the data available to the public in an interactive and customizable way.” Among the takeaways:

  • The department’s core principles include “streamlining processes and harnessing new technologies to be smart about our mission,” it said, as well as a commitment to “being accessible and transparent and adapting to meet the challenges of the modern marketplace.” R&S already provided on-demand access to data to its customers via the open data portal – with researchers and academics typically using the raw data. “It was so popular, R&S had the idea of publishing the interactive tool and making it available for the public to use,” the department said, noting its director and chief financial officer “enthusiastically supported the idea.” The data visualization tool project started in late 2019 and was made available to the public early the next year – done completely in-house via Microsoft Power BI, which integrated with existing CDTFA software. R&S wanted to use an application and technology that was “inexpensive, secure, easy to learn, automatically updated, and widely accessible to anyone if other entities wanted to undertake similar projects,” the department said, indicating other states have expressed interest in creating something similar.
  • Since then, CDTFA has continued to add data and features. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, local governments had, the department said, “many questions about the effects of the pandemic on their sales and use tax revenue.” In response, R&S stood up a cash revenue dashboard that staff updates weekly – offering nearly real-time information on sales and use tax revenue to assist local agencies in creating forecasts. R&S also added the ability to probe cannabis taxable sales, both per capita and by county; and deployed the option to compare per capita taxable sales by city – and for as many as five cities at once. Visualizations that have proven effective thus far include taxable sales by industry, tax rates by jurisdiction, and sales and use tax by local government — especially comparing per capita city revenues.” These options, CDTFA said, were created with input from customers including the League of California Cities and the Greater Sacramento Economic Council.
  • As for takeaways from creating the tool, CDTFA indicated deploying the internal version first – ahead of the public-facing version – “enabled us to establish a process for managing the data uploads and gave us an idea of what tools might be useful.” Then, once a public-facing version was operational, letting customers vet it in beta enabled the department to use their suggestions to make ongoing improvements.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.