Help for Number Crunchers
Software Targets Budget Analysts
George Krumbhaar, 67, spent his early days on Capitol Hill crunching numbers the hard way — with an adding machine.
In a broad range of Hill jobs — he worked on the Joint Economic Committee from 1969 to 1981 as the minority counsel for Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and had stints with Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and two Representatives — he was responsible for covering budget appropriation issues.
Now with the help of his first cousin, Peter Cole, a software engineer, he has developed a solution to make life easier for number crunchers: new software called Federal Budget Observer.
Although the federal budget is public information, Krumbhaar said it is too difficult to manipulate without the proper tools. Before Federal Budget Observer, the most advanced software available was Excel, he said.
“You could hire a consultant or spend days trying to do the process on your own,” Krumbhaar said. “I did that same thing myself — it took a long time.”
The software was made available recently with the numbers from President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2005 budget. It costs $249.95.
“There’s enough budget information here to impress a budget expert but enough information that a budget neophyte could use it easily,” he said of the new software.
Federal Budget Observer allows users to manipulate data from this year and displays comparative data from previous years. Included are budget outlay numbers from 1962 to the present and appropriations from 1976 on. Users can compare the data with the most current federal budget or with budget projections through 2009.
Users can also pick a specific federal agency and compare previous budget numbers to more recent numbers or to future projections. They can then adjust the data for inflation and plot a graph with or without inflation.
Krumbhaar — who currently writes articles for USBudget.com, a company he created and later sold to Gallery Watch — said the real strength of the software for lawmakers and their staffs is to support either side of an argument.
Krumbhaar said a user interested in highway funding, for instance, could plot miles against highway spending and use the data to support an argument either for or against increased highway spending.
He anticipates that the audience for his software will be broad; he is targeting Capitol Hill and federal agencies. He hopes to market to lobbyists and graduate students as well.
“When a Senator gets on the floor, he usually has charts,” Krumbhaar said. “[This software] extends the capability to any lobbyist.”
The software took the two cousins about nine months to complete.
“George has been working with the federal budget for years,” Cole said. “He had a number of ideas in ways of making that interpretation and extraction easier. He has not spent much of his life programming. I took his ideas and turned them into a program.
“If you look at the way you had to do it before with Microsoft Excel, it makes it so much easier,” Cole said.
Cole, who lives outside Boston, said two weeks after the idea came up he saw a chart in The Boston Globe containing numbers from the Office of Management and Budget.
“I knew I could have made some researcher’s life easier,” he said.
Although Cole created the software, he bought existing technology in the form of programs from Microsoft and Gigasoft Inc.
“Their graphs are glorious and flexible, and all I had to do is plug in the numbers and let their charting software take over,” Cole said.
Cole said the pair faced some challenges while creating the software.
“I think conceptually the toughest part was attempting to make the interface as easy to use as possible,” he said. “We wanted it obvious that this is what you do and that was a lot of work. It’s easy to pull numbers out and put them on a screen. It’s harder to get numbers that you can use intuitively.”
Even small details such as the colors in the graphs took time.
“I spent a lot of time looking through Washington documents looking for ‘Washington’ colors,” Krumbhaar said.
In the end, he decided to feature red, yellow and green.
Krumbhaar said it cost him several thousand dollars to create the software. The funds came from his own personal savings because he did not want to incur debt.
Krumbhaar, Cole and one of Cole’s sons, an engineer, have been the only people to test the software so far.
Krumbhaar and his associates are marketing the software through press contacts, newspaper advertising, including Roll Call, product reviews and their Web site, www.bba systems.com.
A sales representative declined to disclose the number of orders received so far but said a “small group” of people have responded.
The software is compatible with Windows ME, Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows XP operating systems. It is not available for Macintosh.