Public Data Goes Social

Written by: Oluseun Onigbinde

Data is invaluable. Access to data has the potential to illuminate issues in a way which triggers results. Nevertheless, poor handling of data can put facts in an opaque structure which communicates nothing. If it doesn’t promote discussion or provide contextual understanding, data may be of limited value to the public.

Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 after lengthy years of military rule. Probing the facts behind data was taken as an affront to authority and was seen to be trying question the stained reputation of the junta. The Official Secrets Act compelled civil servants not to share government information. Even after thirteen years of return to democracy, accessing public data can be a difficult task. Data about public expenditure communicates little to the majority of the public who are not well versed in financial accounting and complex arithmetic.

With the rise of mobile devices and an increasing number of Nigerians online, with BudgIT we saw a huge opportunity to use use data visualization technologies to explain and engage people around public expenditure. To do this we have had to engage users across all platforms and to reach out to citizens via NGOs. This project is about making public data a social object and building an extensive network that demands change.

Figure 114. <em>The BudgIT cut app</em> (BudgIT Nigeria)
Figure 114. The BudgIT cut app (BudgIT Nigeria)

To successfully engage with users, we have to understand what they want. What does the Nigerian citizen care about? Where do they feel an information gap? How can we make the data relevant to their lives? BudgIT’s immediate target is the average literate Nigerian connected to online forums and social media. In order to compete for the limited attention of users immersed in a wide variety of interests (gaming, reading, socialising) we need to present the data in a brief and concise manner. After broadcasting a snapshot of the data as a Tweet or an infographic, there’s an opportunity for a more sustained engagement with a more interactive experience to give users a bigger picture.

When visualizing data it is important to understand the level of data literacy of our users. As beautiful and sophisticated as they may be, complex diagrams and interactive applications might not meaningfully communicate to our users based on their previous experiences with interpreting data. A good visualization will speak to the user in a language they can understand, and bring forth a story that they can easily connect with.

We have engaged over 10,000 Nigerians over the budget and we profile them into three categories to ensure that optimum value is delivered. The categories are briefly explained below:

  • Occasional Users. These are users who want information simply and quickly. They are interested in getting a picture of the data, not detailed analytics. We can engage them via Tweets or interactive graphics.

  • Active Users. Users who stimulate discussion, and use the data to increase their knowledge of a given area or challenge the assumptions of the data. For these users we want to provide feedback mechanisms and the possibility to share insights with their peers via social networks.

  • Data Hogs: These users want raw data for visualization or analysis. We simply give them the data for their purposes.

Figure 115. <em>The BudgIT cut app</em> sliders showing citizen preferences (BudgIT Nigeria)
Figure 115. The BudgIT cut app sliders showing citizen preferences (BudgIT Nigeria)

With BudgIT, our user engagement is based on the following:

  • Stimulating Discussion Around Current Trends. BudgIT keeps track of online and offline discussions and seeks to provide data around these topics. For example, with the fuel strikes in January 2012 there was constant agitation among the protesters on the need to reinstate fuel subsidies and reduce extravagant and unnecessary public expenditure. BudgIT tracked the discussion via social media and in 36 busy hours built an app that allows citizens to reorganise the Nigerian budget.

  • Good Feedback Mechanisms. We engage with users through discussion channels and social media. Many users want to know about stories behind the data and many ask for our opinion. We make sure that our responses only explain the facts behind the data and our not biased by our personal or political views. We need to keep feedback channels open, to actively respond to comments and to engage the users creatively to ensure the community built around the data is sustained.

  • Make it Local. For a dataset targeted at a particular group, BudgIT aims to localise its content and to promote a channel of discussion that connects to the needs and interests of particular groups of users. In particular we’re interested in engaging users around issues they care about via SMS.

After making expenditure data available on, we reach out to citizens through various NGOs. We also plan to develop a participatory framework where citizens and government institutions can meet in town halls to define key items in the budget that needs to be prioritised.

The project has received coverage in local and foreign media, from CP-Africa to the BBC. We have undertaken a review of 2002-2011 budget for the security sector for an AP journalist, Yinka Ibukun. Most media organizations are ‘data hogs’ and have requested data from us to use for their reportage. We are planning further collaborations with journalists and news organizations in the coming months.

Oluseun Onigbinde, BudgIT Nigeria

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