Tracking Political Spending at Trump-owned Properties

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Posted on Apr 30, 2019
THE REASON
The American public understands very little about President Donald Trump’s finances. From
refusing to
release his tax returns
during the 2016 presidential campaign, to wildly inflating his
self-worth
based on however he feels
, it’s difficult to truly understand our president’s assets and
interests. That is a danger to democracy. This danger has led journalists, researchers, and
watchdog groups across the country to try and uncover as much as they can about the
president’s financial history. One particular area of their interest is the payment by political
organizations to Trump-owned businesses. Clearly, such entities spending money at properties
and businesses owned by the president represents a conflict of interest. This would seemingly
be why these organizations have fought tooth and nail in courts to make sure that these
payments don’t leak to the public via reports or through Freedom of Information Act Requests.
The journalists at ProPublica have assembled one of the most complete datasets of such
payments. They did an amazing job visualizing it in its totality. As a journalist myself, and as
someone who is always on the lookout for new tools that can enhance my reporting, for my
project, I wanted to create an app that would let me take a closer look at the data.
 
THE APP
I’m very passionate about journalism. To that end, I’m also passionate about creating tools that
make the lives of journalists easier, no matter their location or level of technical expertise. To
that end, I wanted to make an application using a package in R called “Shiny”. I wanted the
application’s user interface and data visualizations to be simple to understand and use.
I structured my app in accordance with the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. At the
top of the sidebar of my application, I included a drop down menu where a user can select a
political organization whose spending they want to examine. I also ask them to select a year in
which the spending occurred. Underneath are three visualization tabs. One is devoted to who
displaying a chart of which Trump-owned organizations the political entity paid, one displays a
chart for what purpose generally they were spending their money, and the final tab displays an
interactive map and chart displaying where the organization was spending its money.
 
THE DATA
ProPublica’s data,
found here
, was very clean for the most part. The most relevant variables for
my app were the date, location, purpose, who made the payment, and to whom the payment
was made. I planned on adding an interactive map feature to the “Who” section of my
application, so I went and found latitude and longitude data for each of the Trump-owned
businesses who had been paid and added a variable there. I also added a solitary year variable
for ease given that it would be referenced in one of my drop-down inputs on the sidebar of the
app.
The issue with this data set is included right up front when downloading it from ProPublica’s
website. It’s by no means a complete representation of the spending at Trump properties.
According to ProPublica’s site, many government agencies are still fighting requests to disclose
spending at Trump properties. The dataset continues to be updated as they receive more
observations.
Also, some of the data they gathered from different agencies was incomplete. The Secret
Service and the Coast Guard protection details did not disclose their expenses. In addition,
some federal spending details did not include transaction details.
 
THE FUTURE:
Obviously, the first thing I would like to do in the future is to continue to update the dataset
based on what ProPublica is able to find.
Next, while I had originally intended to keep the data visualizations simple so as not to confuse
anyone who used the app, I would like to give the user the option for more visualizations if they
do so choose.
And while I had initially passed over doing a summary spending page in favor of breaking the
data down by spender and by year, it would probably help to give context to a user who isn’t as
familiar with the overall spending as I am.
Finally, I’d like to plot the map in the “where” section of my app differently. The Google API key I
initially used is now broken and displays strangely within the app. I’ll certainly need to either use
plotly maps instead or call Alphabet and trying to sort something out.

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