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Spending Stories

The following post is from Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation.

We submitted a proposal for a project called Spending Stories to the Knight News Challenge back in December but in the rush before Christmas we didn’t get a chance to post about here!

The News Challenge aims to “advance the future of news by funding new ways to digitally inform communities”.

Spending Stories would be closely related to the Where Does My Money Go? project, and would aim to connect news stories about public spending to relevant datasets and visualisations, to put these stories into context. The full text of the proposal is included below.

Just last week we were notified that the idea has made through to the ‘Full Proposal’ stage. Anyone interested in discussing this further or contributing as we take it forward is most welcome — please join the wdmmg-discuss list.

Spending Stories

Describe your project

Every day there are fresh headlines about the public purse. We are bombarded with stories about cutbacks, bailouts, deficits, and subsidies. Spending figures permeate reportage about everything from hospital bed numbers to green energy programmes, foreign aid to local transport schemes. Without context it is difficult for ordinary readers to understand what the big numbers mean – and to know whether or not to trust those numbers.

At the same time, public bodies are releasing an unprecedented amount of raw data on public spending. Recent commitments to financial transparency in countries such as the US and the UK enable the public to explore where their tax money is spent in unprecedented detail. But users of transparency websites may get lost in the data without familiar narratives to make the budget lines meaningful.

Spending Stories will enable users to connect news stories to spending data and vice versa. This will enable users to put the big numbers into perspective by giving them access to the data behind the stories they read. It will enable users to make sense of official spending data by showing them what different news sources are saying about different spending items.

For example, someone reading a recent UK tabloid headline that claims ‘CCTV cost councils £300m in 3 years’ would be able to drill down into data on CCTV spending in different regions over several decades, see stories about this data from other sources, and make up their own mind about the expenditure. Someone browsing through the recent UK government release of spending over £25k would be able to see that line items relating to the outsourcing company Capita received widespread coverage in the national news, and to see which large line
items were less well covered.

Spending Stories will be driven by a powerful combination of machine-automated analysis and human verification from a large base of users interested in public spending. The core technology will be initially developed using data and news stories from the UK, but it will be gradually deployed in a number of other countries. The software will be open source and freely available, and we will work with a range of international partners to start versions of the project in different geographical areas.

In addition to matching stories to datasets, an expert blog will bring together leading public spending experts from public bodies, academia, and civic society to analyse the numbers behind the headlines using a variety of different tools from the Where Does My Money Go? project. Inspired by projects such as Gapminder, the blog will include a number of short videos to demonstrate spending over time, in different regions and different areas.

How will your project improve the delivery of news and information to geographic communities?

Users of the site will be able to be notified of news stories and spending datasets pertaining to their geographic region or relevant to their interests. For example, after entering their postcode, a user might be notified of news stories about spending cuts to their local hospital, and would be able to directly browse and explore the data behind these stories from their local authority. Someone browsing the site could navigate to their geographical region and see top stories related to, e.g., a proposed new cultural heritage facility or changes in taxes or educational fees.

Furthermore, users would have the opportunity to comment on budget lines, engage with other users who are interested in stories and datasets in their region, and ask questions about what the numbers mean to a variety of local and national experts. They would be able to fact-check local news stories, verify that the numbers reported are portrayed accurately, and examine local spending figures with meaningful context (such as top-down spending comparisons with other regions or previous financial years, seeing how similar line items compare in different geographical regions, and so on). Finally they would be able to explore spending figures directly, and see numbers
that aren’t necessarily reported on. Tools on the site would be able to be embedded in hyperlocal news websites, blogs and in discussions taking place on social networking services such as Facebook or Twitter.

What unmet need does your proposal answer?

The numbers and spending claims in news stories are often presented without context, and it can often be difficult to track down the official document or spreadsheet which contains the original figures in order to verify them or to make meaningful comparisons or inferences. Spending Stories will enable users to quickly and easily access the numbers behind the headlines without having to scour official websites, portals, documents and datasets looking for the relevant information by providing them with a direct URL to the item they are looking for.

Public finance is very complicated and it is currently very difficult to get a sense of how individual spending items that are reported in the news fit into a bigger picture. Budgetary information is published by many different public bodies at local, regional and national level, and the way in which the spending is reported may vary. Spending Stories will provide a suite of tools for visualisation and analysis which will enable users to explore spending items and spending areas in which they are interested in more detail. Users will also be able to compare what is said about a given spending item or area, to start to build a more rich and critical sense of how public spending is reported on by different journalists, and different media outlets. In addition to these tools, the expert blog will also provide a series of short articles and viral videos that drill down into the data behind the stories in more detail and provide more context, to interpret, question and challenge the way that public spending is reported on.

How is your idea new?

Currently there are very few websites dedicated to exploring, analysing and fact-checking reportage about public spending. The tools and content provided by Spending Stories will enable users to learn about where public money goes, and how the media reports on this, in ways which were not previously possible. The Spending Stories expert blog will enable users to become much more literate in what the big numbers mean, and will equip them to answer questions about spending areas they are interested in.

There are also very few websites which create links between news stories and the sources behind them. While a minority of mainstream official news outlets link back to original data sources (notably the Guardian’s Datablog, and, to a much more limited extent, the BBC News website), this is very much the exception rather than the norm. Usually such outlets may link to a website, or spreadsheet, but will not provide a link to more granular information (e.g. to the level of budget lines). Furthermore, such services will characteristically focus on news provided by one outlet, and will not enable users to see what other stories have been published about a given spending item by others.

The combination of official data, aggregated reportage, expert voices and a suite of easy to use analytical tools will put Spending Stories at the cutting edge of data-driven journalism.

What will you have changed by the end of the project?

By the end of the project we hope to have had a significant impact on the way in which public spending is understood and reported on in the UK by transforming the way that journalists and ordinary citizens interact with official information sources. While it is currently very difficult to understand what the big numbers mean, we hope that the tools and content on Spending Stories will allow the general public to be better informed about what is happening with public funds. Additionally we hope the more advanced functionality in our tools will catalyse a new generation of investigative journalists and will enable unprecedented public spending data literacy amongst researchers and in civic society.

Why are you the right person or team to complete this project?

The Open Knowledge Foundation has substantial experience in working with public datasets. It is one of the most prominent organisations promoting open government data internationally. It helped to build the UK government’s data.gov.uk site, and is currently building data catalogues in over 20 countries. It has a broad range of contacts interested in open government data from key national and international bodies and civic society organisations around the world. Its Director Rufus Pollock is one of the four people on the UK government’s transparency advisory board, along with inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It has access to a large global network of civic society hackers, designers and experts in public sector information.

In particular the OKF has more experience working with large spending datasets than any other organisation in the UK, and has advised and provided technical assistance in this area to the Guardian and numerous other media organisations. It helped to open up the COINS data (to which it was given advanced access), which at the time was the most detailed dataset on UK public spending ever released. Last month it hosted the announcement for the launch of all spending over £25k. Its Where Does My Money Go? project (funded by Channel 4’s 4IP) is one of the most well known tools for exploring where public spending goes, and has been widely cited as a shining example in this area internationally. Its benefits from advice and input on data visualisation by leading practitioners and experts such as Hans Rosling (Gapminder), David McCandless (Information is Beautiful) and Andrew Vande Moere (Infosethetics). It has a wide range of contacts, experience and expertise to undertake all aspects of the project related to working with large datasets and providing intuitive and easy to use interfaces for the public to explore them.

The OKF also has a broad network of contacts interested in public spending, from government experts, to academic researchers to independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Hence it is in an excellent position to run an expert blog on UK government public spending. Over the past 18 months it has also developed a strong base of contacts interested in public spending from the traditional media (BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Times), as well as from emerging media channels. Many of these contacts are active users of the Where Does My Money Go? project, and hence we expect that many of them will also use the tools provided by Spending Stories. Our contacts with existing media outlets means that we are well positioned to start to aggregate stories around public spending.

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