Council card spending: How we analysed the data

ANALYSING nearly 40,000 purchases worth $6.8 million made by staff members at the City of Ballarat has been a long and exhaustive process.

It began after The Courier submitted a Freedom of Information request last year requesting documentation on all transactions made using purchase cards over the past three financial years.

What we got back were 926 pages of documents, which included tens of thousands of transactions.

To make things even more difficult, many of the descriptions included spelling mistakes, were redacted for privacy reasons, or were simply left blank.
Step one was making the documents easier to analyse.

The documents were provided to The Courier in a format that was unsearchable, so we were unable to check regular transactions or add up the total spend.

To get around this, the files had to be digitised using "optical character recognition" software: a program that reads documents and then produces an editable final copy.

While the software used for this process is one of the most powerful on the market, it isn't perfect, meaning we cannot guarantee what it produced is 100 per cent accurate.

However, because it would take many months to go through each transaction one by one, this method was chosen as the best way forward.

To double check what results the software produced, 100 random transactions were selected from the digitised database and compared to the original source documents.

The results from this test produced just one purchase amount error and a total of ten letters spelt wrong across seven transaction descriptions. 

After the documents were digitised, we then conducted a number of searches to group together all the similar transactions made by council staff using purchase cards. 

Because there appears to be no standardised form of explaining transactions, not all transactions grouped together can be considered equal.

Searching for "coffee", for example, would return results such as: coffee x 3 - Staff meeting ($11.40), Coffee Supplies ($210.95) and Coffee frother ($25.11).

However, the searches do indicate how often something like "coffee" was included in a transaction description and can be considered spending on such.

While we have gone through the documents to try and keep an eye on council spending, we would also like our readers to help us go through the documents to see what they find.

Keep in mind the descriptions are short and often incomplete. Some words have been blacked-out to protect commercial relationships.

If you see anything you think needs to be scrutinised further, email tom.cowie@fairfaxmedia.com.au.

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