Dissertation Reflections: Open Budget Data and Society

Open Data

Over the course of my master’s research – entitled Bringing Public Budgets Closer to Citizens: An Engagement Challenge for Open Data - some people asked me to share the findings later on. So I would like to use this blog post as an opportunity to write more informally about what I have found and concluded. However, before I get to the findings I would like to provide some background information first.

I came from an open source software background and my interest in the impact of technology in society took me to a master’s program in Digital Culture & Society at King’s College London. In addition, I have always been interested in macroeconomics and its effects on our daily lives. When the time to decide my dissertation topic came, I had no doubt about mixing all those different interests. After some preliminary investigation I decided to research about open budget data, a topic that I was already following closely for a few years. I was already acquainted to this particular area of knowledge due to my involvement with open source software and my master’s module choices were naturally pointing to that direction as well. In fact it was the perfect opportunity to dive deeper.

The research idea came from the following question: are open budget initiatives really capable of improving citizen awareness about government expending and trigger greater engagement on public finances? In order to answer that question, three initiatives that make use of open budget data were chosen as case studies: OpenSpending, an international initiative led by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) which features a wide community that develops and provides a web infrastructure to publish budgets online; BudgIT, a Nigerian project that comprehends a website, a mobile app and a strong social media presence; Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking initiative which frequently analyses what politicians state about the country’s budget affairs, checking their speeches against data publicly available and giving a final verdict published on their own website.

OpendataAlright, now let’s get to the point! Here it is what the research has found:

  • Projects such as OpenSpending that aim to provide an easy to use framework through which citizens can publish open budget data still need to lower barriers for contributions. OpenSpeding is built by a technical community of developers and open budget enthusiasts that can potentially engage with the average citizen who is interested in knowing more about their government’s budget. Nonetheless, it is an ongoing challenge to engage citizens who are not academically or professionally involved with public finances.
  • The OpenSpending Next project, currently under development, is a clear step towards the goal of engaging more people. It will certainly contribute to make open budgets more accessible worldwide by facilitating data upload and sharing.
  • In order to reach a wider audience, community managers should build a stronger presence on social media. Although OpenSpending has a worldwide reach, the project is not very active on Facebook and Twitter, triggering lower engagement if compared to initiatives such as BudgIT. The Nigerian initiative is highly successful in its communication strategy via social media which is characterized by the use of simple info-graphics and timely status updates.
  • Access to open budget data in developing countries such as Nigeria is constrained to the portion of population that has access to the Internet. This usually represents a low to moderate penetration potential for open budget data initiatives as the Internet penetration itself is frequently less than 50% of the overall population in developing countries.
  • The audience of open budget initiatives recognizes the valuable contribution of the information provided also expressing that they would like to see the same content shared on mainstream media in order to amplify the reach of the data disclosed.
  • In addition, the audience suggests that regional characteristics should be taken into account by the initiatives. For instance by providing info-graphics and information translated into major local dialects.
  • The availability of open budget data has been very important to the rise of fact-checking initiatives such as Aos Fatos. The diversification of open data sources has enabled faster verification and increased reliability.
  • Fact-checking projects are seen by their audience as an instrument capable of filtering the huge amount of noise that exists on the Internet regarding the political discourse around certain topics.
  • One particular feature that singles fact-checking out is the use of journalistic stories along with data. For instance, in addition to an info-graphic, fact-checking initiatives also present a comprehensive contextualization of that particular topic thus telling the story behind the charts.
  • The journalistic approach towards data contributes to the audience understanding and has impacts on their engagement on social media. However, interviewees reflected that fact-checking by itself is not capable of engaging citizens to put pressure on politicians and decision makers. Such actions are beyond the scope of fact checking thus leaving this kind of practice to other initiatives focused on community mobilization.
  • Moreover, data gathered from Aos Fatos social media accounts indicate that the audience is very interested in sharing their content but only a small portion of them comment on the original posts. Instead of discussing with a larger audience on the social media official account, people seem to be more interested in sharing the content among their own group of friends or followers thus fostering the discussion between closer people.

In conclusion, the research shows that there are a variety of civil society led initiatives using open budget data using different approaches. However, there are three central conclusions that stand out from the overall analysis of them. Firstly, the organization of communities around open data highlights the fundamental importance of tackling the lack of Internet access in many regions of world so that open data can reach a wider audience. Building data and communication infrastructures is crucial to civic participation. Secondly, governments should heavily invest in data literacy through both, traditional education systems and citizen led initiates such as School of Data. Proper access to education is a must since, in addition to have access to data, citizens should be able to make sense of it. Lastly, initiatives that make use of open budget data are on the right path towards citizen engagement. However, they still need to improve their community and communication strategies to be really capable of engaging citizens at large. The connection between open budget data and the wider audience is fairly recent and it is an ongoing work. Projects and citizens will build and improve openness together. That is the way forward.

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