June 5, 2015 IODC

A guest post by Eva Constantaras on the Data + Public Money panel at IODC15. 

Together the open data community has come together to #followthemoney and liberate the data needed to stamp out corruption. Now they are finding out how to get citizens to #leadtheway.

Understanding how public money is spent is a fundamental goal for many open data projects. You could go so far as to say that how public money is spent has been at the heart of much open data advocacy. But the release of data alone doesn’t automatically create the citizen engagement and accountability that open government advocates are seeking. Beyond making data available, next step is to get people to care and to act with it. To work on connecting data and action:

  • Bond launched the Aid Attitude Tracker to get citizens of the United Kingdom to pay attention to how development aid is being spent.
  • La Nación of Argentina crowd-sourced the manual entry of MP expenses through scrapathons to raise awareness of government corruption.
  • The Open Knowledge Foundation trains CSOs in the use of the Global Open Data Index.
  • Open Data Lab Jakarta produce infographics that run in local media to bring fiscal data to citizens.
  • The Slovak Open Government Partnership created opendatanode.org to engage stakeholders in open data publication & exchange in Slovakia.
  • Reboot tries to get inside the heads of government officials to figure out what threats and opportunities exist to push a data-driven policy agenda.

All of these groups faced a common challenge. They had liberated the data, but nobody was using it. Whether their target users were citizens, civil society or government, data dissemination was not happening. The experiences below show some of the different strategies groups have taken:

As Mor Rubenstein of the Open Knowledge Foundation explained, after going through all the trouble of tracking down elusive spending data, their user base never fully materialized. The Open Data Index is crowdsourced from civil society and seeks to assess the quality of open data supply in order to bridge the gap between what civil society wants to see, and what government wants to offer, in terms of spending data.  But despite a design based on user-input, uptake has been low: “Budget data can be difficult and boring so hard to engage citizens in analyzing data.”

When bridging the gap between budget data supply and demand using the media is often an important part of a full strategy, and intermediary tools can help journalists to dig into otherwise impenetrable datasets. Jan Gondol, part of the team workong on Slovakia Open Government Partnership Action Plan, explained how in Slovakia government bodies and private companies are publishing their financial data, and civic hackers are analyzing that contractual data and tipping off journalists to potential stories to investigate. Facilitating that process is Open Data Note, an open source tool that allows the exploration of both public and private through a user-friendly interface that can be used internally or externally. Even so, they realize the need to further pilot the tool and involve a range of different intermediaries between techies and the public.

La Nación of Argentina turned that process on its head. Inspired by the Guardian’s MP Expenses app, it enlisted 1,000 volunteers from universities and civil society in a gamified series of ‘scrape-a-thons’ to open 10,000 PDFs worth of senate expenses in a project called Voz Data (Voice Data).  Following the success of that project, Flor Coelho explained that they are now crowd-sourcing tagging of audio-files surrounding the controversial death of a public prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who accused Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of an Iranian bomb cover-up. The idea is not only free labor through micro-tasking, but a public that sees a role for itself in accountability.

Eko Prasetyo from Open Data Lab Jakarta explained they face the constant challenge of low awareness among CSOs regarding data; methods for submitting freedom of information requests and tapping into open data channels.  Their system to overcome these barriers include identifying transparency champions, mentoring and training these groups, monitoring their individual projects, learning and evaluating results and ensuring that findings come out not only online but also in traditional print media to get the message out.

Reboot struggled to convince the Nigerian government to release and use data to fix its own public spending problem.  Panthea Lee explained that after coming to understand that a lot of procurement is driven by trust networks to overcome weak capacity and financial insecurity, Reboot was able to develop data visualizations to help government understand how they could improve spending processes and economic planning in that context.  Achieving culture meant proving to a couple of ministries that data could help them reach their immediate public service priorities.

Together the open data community has come together to #followthemoney and liberate the data needed to stamp out corruption. Now they are finding out how to get citizens to #leadtheway.



May 28, 2015 IODC

A guest post from Jed Miller on understanding data on financial flows. 

When we present data and information, the medium is often the message. “Download our full dataset (19MB),” sends a different message than “New figures suggest the oil spill would cover Lake Erie.” The tension between data depth and clear narratives is not a simple one, though. Sometimes the most important story data tells is in the relationships between data sets.

In the oil, gas and mining sector, a complex web of relationships governs the flow of money from private companies to governments to the local communities that benefit from government spending and services. Groups like Publish What You Pay and NRGI are in Ottawa discussing better tools to promote accountability in the extractive industries by extracting data on these fiscal flows, which can also include foreign aid and local taxes, among other things.

The World Bank has been working with colleagues from these fields to draft a tool that can illustrate the web of relationships in the extractive sector, and serve as a visual backdrop for posting data in context.

The first sketches are now available and we are pleased to present them below—as a work in progress—for feedback from the IODC community. Comments from our open data colleagues will help guide how we develop the tool from a simple image to a flexible system that can explain fiscal flows in a particular country, or can track gaps in data availability or disclosure rules.

We want to build from a “base image,” to collaboratively define a range of uses and adaptable “layers,” as the example layers illustrate.

Working with John Emerson, a veteran designer in the human rights field, we’ve deliberately begun modestly with a static picture not a fancy tool, in order to test our assumptions with users in the open data and Follow the Money communities. We believe that over time we can add layers that show harder-to-follow flows such as illicit and “gray” payments, political influence, and extra-national flows through corporate ownership structures and tax havens.

Michael Jarvis, Extractive Governance lead for the World Bank, says that the oil and mining sectors are an ideal starting point for “following the money,” because extractives dominate the budgets of many less developed countries, and a map like this can help donors and advocates link areas of current and potential work to several points in the system. “We hope it can be a conversation starter to bridge the work of people looking at the management of extractives with those thinking about public financial management, investment and procurement in resource-rich country settings.”

In open data circles, when someone says they’re making a visualization, your first thought might be a picture that’s beautiful but rather complicated, or a web tool that promises a windfall of analysis if you have the time and expertise.

By starting with a simple visual vocabulary, we think we can more clearly convey these fiscal systems to a wider group. We can also give government officials, international campaigners and open data advocates a tool to make the case for open data policies and good practices.

By making the tool flexible for future uses, we can help a range of different advocates and experts to explain and disseminate their work more easily, and hopefully save time and money rebuilding the wheel each time they create a new visualization.

Most importantly, we believe that by making a visualization that can be repurposed for different uses, we can give the groups that use it a channel for collaboration—or at least a common reference point to worked to greater interoperability of data.

Please note that these images are works in progress. The Base Map is generic, the sample layers have real data, but it has not been exhaustively compared to other sources. We know there’s no such thing as a generic map. The value for people comes when the image is populated with the flow or overlay that applies to them.

How could a visual tool like this be most useful to you? Which elements should be clickable and “expandable” to help your own work? Which measurements and assessments of money—and of data—can inform your own analysis or advocacy?

We encourage everyone in the IODC and open data communities to send input, feedback and ideas for potential uses of this visual tool. You can email us at ftmvisual@gmail.com.

Like open data itself, a tool that gets shared encourages links between the people sharing it. More links encourage more dialogue, which can make future collaborations more likely and more efficient.

Disclaimer: All images are works in progress. The layout is intentionally hypothetical and the Base Map does not represent any single country. The sample data is real, but neither complete nor verified against multiple sources.


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