Support Us

You are browsing the archive for Open Spending.

Mapping the Open Spending Data Community

Neil Ashton - January 6, 2014 in Featured, Open Spending

Mapping the Open Spending Data Community

We’re pleased to announce the official release of “Mapping the Open Spending Data Community” by Anders Pedersen and Lucy Chambers, an in-depth look at how citizens, journalists, and civil society organisations around the world are using data on government finances to further their civic missions.

The investigation began in 2012 with three goals:

  • To identify Civil Society organisations (CSOs) around the world who are interested in working with government financial data
  • To connect these CSOs with each other, with open data communities, and with other key stakeholders to exchange knowledge, experiences, and best practices in relation to spending data
  • To discover how CSOs currently work with spending data, how they would like to use it, and what they would like to achieve

This report is the result. It brings together key case studies from organisations who have done pioneering work in using technology to work with public finance data in each of budgets, spending, and procurements, and it presents a curated selection of tools and other advice in an appendix.

As part of this research, we’ve also produced a four-part video series “Athens to Berlin“, which you can watch to meet some of the fascinating characters in the world of CSOs working with government spending data and to learn firsthand about their successes and their challenges.

Originally Published on the Open Spending Blog Jan 3rd, 2014

Launching Spending Stories: How much is it really?

Anders Pedersen - November 21, 2013 in Data Journalism, Featured, Open Spending, Releases

spendingstories

Spending Stories is a new way to put spending figures in their proper perspective. Developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation and Journalism++ with funding from the Knight Foundation, Spending Stories is an app that helps citizens and journalists understand and compare amounts in stories from the news.

When we hear that the UK’s school meals programme costs £6 million, what does that really mean? It means, for one thing, that it costs about a fifth of the annual spending on the monarchy.

Spending Stories draws out comparisons between amounts of money, giving users a context in which to understand how money is being spent across society while referencing the original news stories.

Users can enter a figure into Spending Stories and get a scale visualisation showing how it compares with spending stories from the app’s database.

£700,000: scale visualisation

The app displays the big picture, and users can then click through to a card visualisation that shows how the amount relates to specific stories.

£700,000: card visualisation

Users can filter stories to only show amounts that relate to the user’s interests, for example aid or energy.

Filtering stories

If users find news stories of interest, they can contribute these to the database in three easy steps and share them.

Contribute new data

Due to the good availability of UK spending data in OpenSpending, this first release of Spending Stories focuses on the UK. Spending Stories is, however, an open source project and can easily be forked and translated into other languages.

We hope to help Spending Stories sites launch on their own and expand with new features and local news stories. At launch, we are already in touch with Open Knowledge Foundation Japan about the potential deployment of Spending Stories in Japanese.

If you would like to know more about the options for setting up a local Spending Stories site, get in touch.

budzeti.ba: Following the money in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Neil Ashton - October 29, 2013 in Open Spending, Tools in Use

We’re pleased to announce the launch of budzeti.ba, a new way to understand public spending in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). budzeti.ba is a joint project of Bosnian civil society advocates CPI and the Open Knowledge Foundation. It allows Bosnian citizens to navigate the complexities of the BiH tax system and to explore the distribution of public funds across administrative regions and categories of social spending. budzetiba budzeti.ba is designed to make public spending accessible to every Bosnian citizen. Users can inspect the details of national spending on categories like health and education through a simple point-and-click interface, and they can dig down into regional spending priorities by clicking through an interactive map. budzeti.ba’s tax calculator feature allows Bosnians to learn how much they contribute to public services and where it goes by specifying their home region and their monthly income. No specialized knowledge is required to use budzeti.ba or to understand its intuitive presentation of spending.

The budzeti.ba site brings together data from several sources, such as government websites and the Official Gazette of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The site’s initial launch is based on data from 2012 and will be updated as new data becomes available. CPI intends to deepen budzeti.ba’s regional coverage by including municipal data and to enrich its analysis of government spending with data from the Open Budget Survey, infographics on debt and deficit, and more.

This blog post is cross-posted from the Open Spending blog – to find out more about the Open Spending community, join their mailing list.

Visualizing How the Brazilian Government Underspends on the Public Good

Christian Villum - August 22, 2013 in OKF Brazil, Open Knowledge Foundation Local Groups, Open Spending

This post is authored by Vitor Batista, who works as developer for the Open Knowledge Foundation, and Neil Ashton, Data Roundup Editor for the School of Data blog. It is cross-posted from the PBS Ideas and OpenSpending blogs.

Brazilian NGO INESC (Institute of Socio-Economic Studies) and Open Knowledge Foundation Brasil want Brazilians to participate in the allocation of their public spending and ensure that it is used to construct a free, fair, and sustainable society.

That’s why we partnered to create Orçamento ao seu Alcance, a site which presents the execution of the Brazilian federal budget in an interactive and intuitive form.

We used OpenSpending as our database. This made it easier to focus and develop our visualizations without the need for setting up additional infrastructure for data hosting, and it made the data readily available in an accessible way.

What’s the project about?

Millions of Brazilians pay the taxes that fund the federal budget, but few actually understand it. Most are unaware of Brazil’s unjust regressive tax regime and of the scale of the losses to the public through misallocation. The information they need to understand these realities is simply not available in a comprehensible form. By building Orçamento ao seu Alcance, we hope to change that.

Orçamento ao seu Alcance’s development focused particularly on the issue of underspending. All Brazilian public bodies spend less money than is allocated to them, to varying degrees. The Ministry of Education, for example, left 16.3% of its budget (about US$ 6.1 billion) unspent in 2012, and the Ministry of Culture only spent 47.5% of its budget in 2012. If Brazilians’ needs were really being met – if every Brazilian who wanted to study had access to good public schools, for example – this underspending would not be a problem. But that is far from the case; in fact less than 1% of schools have an ideal infrastructure (a problem we have explored previously). To explore and highlight the problem, and we created a special-purpose data visualization.

How we used OpenSpending

Orçamento ao seu Alcance took data collected by SIGA Brasil, an aggregator for the many systems used by the Brazilian government to organize budget data, and added it to the OpenSpending database. Using OpenSpending freed us from creating our own database and allowed us to use the OpenSpending API to construct visualizations and a full-text search system.

Visualizing underspending

We designed our own graph to tackle the problem of underspending. The result is a time series graph that combines bars, lines, and an area. The site constructs such a graph for each budgetary unit, showing how its budget and spending compare for a given year.

Orçamento ao seu Alcance: underspending

The blue area in the graph represents the total budget – which, as you can see, changes over the year. Each red bar shows how much was spent in a particular month, and the red line tracks total spending. The distance from the red line to the tip of the blue area gives the share of the budget remaining to be spent. The amount remaining in December is money that is underspent.

This graph was built using NVD3, a JavaScript library with a collection of reusable charts made on top of D3.js. The data comes from OpenSpending via its Aggregate API.

Budget treemap

For the index page, we wanted to show a broad view of the budget across all public bodies. More than that, we wanted to show the amount of money used in each function and subfunction (e.g. Education and Basic Education). To do this, we used the OpenSpending treemap visualization.

Orçamento ao seu Alcance: treemap

OpenSpending allows you to create a treemap as a “widget” which can be simply dropped into a site. We used a modified version of the widget code with customized colours and a “back” button for improved navigation.

Searching

To help the user find public bodies, we implemented a search box with auto-complete using Twitter Bootstrap‘s typeahead library.

Orçamento ao seu Alcance: search

To make the search instantaneous for the user, we load all data entries as soon as the user enters the page. The OpenSpending Aggregate API once again helped with this, allowing us to get a list of all public bodies with a simple query.

Problems we had

We did run into a few problems using OpenSpending to build the site, though all of them could be overcome.

The Aggregate API only allows you to request one financial quantity (one measure) at a time. You can’t request both a budget quantity and a payment at the same time, for example. Our underspending graph ended up using three measures, requiring three requests. This is a performance problem. Because the API caches results, however, it ends up being OK – and there are already plans to support multiple measures in future versions, so this problem will soon be solved.

With the treemap visualization, our problem was that widgets are not customizable. They’re made to be dragged and dropped into a blog post or a newspaper article, not integrated into a site with its own design. To change the treemap’s colours and fonts, we had to use a modified version of the widget’s code.

Conclusions

We’re happy with how Orçamento ao seu Alcance turned out, and OpenSpending contributed a lot to its success.

For developers, OpenSpending made it possible to run the site without its own database and to publish its content in a sleek, cacheable form. For the project’s NGO supporters, using OpenSpending makes it possible to update the data without needing to deal with the site’s developers. Everyone is happy.

We hope that Orçamento ao seu Alcance will inspire other OpenSpending satellite sites that will help spread budgetary awareness around the globe.

Predicting city bankruptcies with open data: The case of Detroit

Guest - July 31, 2013 in Featured, Open Spending

This is a guest post by Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions.

Used to Make Money Selling Baked Goods

Many have noticed that the United States last week was struck by its biggest municipal bankruptcy ever, when the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy. Less well known is the fact that Moody’s, the major credit rating agency, downgraded the City of Chicago by three notches at about the same time.

Earlier this year, I used audited financial disclosures to estimate the risk of city bond defaults, which often accompany bankruptcies, in the state of California. The research was funded by a grant from the state, but its conclusions are mine and not those of any official agency. The goal was to see whether open data collected from so called Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR), that US governments typically file as PDFs, and open analytics (or open economic modeling), can serve as an alternative to standard credit rating agency analysis.

The model created during the research is openly available and designed to calculate default probabilities, where higher scores are worse than lower scores. Since 1940, the annual default rate for American cities has been 0.10%. In 2012 however, 2 out of 265 or 0.75% of California cities defaulted on their debt, and so that is the average score in the model. Scores substantially higher than 0.75% therefore represent heightened credit risk.

A number of people have asked me how the scoring model would have treated Detroit (Michigan) and Chicago (Illinois), which are in other US states. Here is a my response.

A Google spreadsheet containing the model is available here and embedded below. It is a modified version of our original model. I entered data from Detroit’s 2012 CAFR, which was published on December 28, 2012 and the Chicago’s 2012 CAFR which appeared more recently. Based on our open model Detroit’s probability score is 3.34%, which is worse than almost every California city in our survey. Chicago’s score is also pretty bad: at 1.77% it is worse than the score for Stockton, which was one of the two California cities to default in 2012.

The main driver of Detroit’s high default probability score is its negative general fund balance. The ratio of Detroit’s general fund balance to general fund expenditure is -27%. As reported in our April working paper general fund exhaustion, which means very low or negative general fund balances, were associated with the Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino bankruptcies. The situation in Detroit provides further evidence that municipal bond investors and other stakeholders would benefit by monitoring this indicator.

Although Chicago does not have a negative general fund balance, it has an annual general fund deficit and declining revenue, two of the four indicators that drive the default probability score. Chicago also has a relatively high ratio of interest and pension costs to total governmental fund revenues. When these uncontrollable costs become relatively high, bankruptcy is harder to avoid.

Assessing government default probability rates based on open data is today a challenging task, as most cities publish this data in PDF-format. Getting cities to publish such data in machine readable format, would make such research a lot easier. For the OpenSpending community the the bankruptcy of Detroit also underlines the need for addressing not only spending, but also revenue flows and liabilities.

Collecting, extracting and analyzing data from public financial disclosures can help us evaluate the credit risk of our local governments openly and transparent. This could be an important way of using the OpenSpending concept and platform.

What’s the deal with the UK government’s new spending tool?

Jonathan Gray - July 30, 2013 in Featured, Open Data, Open Spending, Policy, Public Money, Where Does My Money Go

We were pleasantly surprised to learn that this morning the UK government launched a new tool to explore UK public spending.

The ‘Government Interrogating Spending Tool’ (fear not – you the user are supposed to be the giver, not the receiver, of interrogation) or ‘GIST’ is, according to the Cabinet Office, “one of the first of its kind in the world”, giving an “unprecedented view” of public spending, which was previously “only published in clunky spreadsheet form”.

The site gives you a high level overview of quarterly departmental spending, as well as enabling you to see how the big numbers break down.

A little bit of history repeating?

“But wait!”, you might say. Doesn’t this all sound a bit familiar? Haven’t the Cabinet Office and others already released things like this in the past?

Is it really true that before today’s release citizens could only explore UK government spending in “clunky spreadsheet form”?

Around five years ago I wrote a concept note for a project called Where Does My Money Go?, which would enable citizens to explore public spending through interactive visualisations. The idea was a winner of the Cabinet Office’s 2008 Show Us A Better Way competition, and an early prototype of the project was picked up by the BBC. The Open Knowledge Foundation worked with the information designer David McCandless to create new visualisations that let citizens explore how much tax they pay towards different things every day, as well as giving an overview of regional and departmental spending.

Building on this work, our OpenSpending project now has over 14 million spending transactions from over 70 countries, 130 cities – including some of the most detailed data available on UK government spending ever published, such as COINS and all departmental spending above £25k. Some of this data is also available through the government’s Data.gov.uk Spend Browser.

Many others have also been working hard to present government spending to citizens through intuitive visualisations – such as the Guardian’s annual spending overview diagram and their budget visualisations with the Miso Project.

What’s new?

Today’s new spending tool includes two kinds of spending information which, as far as we know, have not previously been released: ‘Project Oscar’ and the ‘Quarterly Data Summary’ (which together would make a pretty great band name).

Project Oscar is the much anticipated replacement for the ‘Combined Online Information System’ (or COINS). It took years of campaigning and carefully crafted freedom of information requests before COINS was released in all (or rather most of) its glorious 120 gigabytes in July 2010. However some of the coverage claimed that it was too big and too difficult for most journalists and citizens to download and make sense of.

It seems likely that the focus of today’s release on usability and presentation will have been at least partly inspired by feedback from the 2010 release. And we’re pleased to see that Project Oscar has been able to see the light of day with such greater ease than its predecessor.

What is it good for? Not just hunting for waste

We think that releasing open data about public money is an essential step towards increasing government accountability and democratising our public institutions – and has many different benefits regardless of where you might be on the political spectrum.

However, we are disappointed to see such one-sided framing around the release, which shoehorned the manifold ways that citizens, journalists and civil society organisations might be interested in using data about public spending into a narrative that strongly focuses on efficiency, waste and cost savings.

With the headline that urges taxpayers to “join the hunt for government savings”, and with quotes that focus on “wasteful spending” and “saving money for taxpayers” the press release leaves little room for the positive characterisation of public spending, the tax system and all of the essential public services (roads, schools, hospitals), that taxpayers contribute to, and little room for many of the ways that citizens and civil society groups might use and interact with this data – beyond hunting for waste.

This very one-sided characterisation highlights the importance of enabling citizens, the media and civil society organisations to be able to use, share, republish, and make sense of spending data for themselves, rather than just taking the way official information is presented at face value. This is why our OpenSpending project strives to enable groups with lots of different views to use spending data in lots of different ways.

In any case, we’re glad to see the UK continuing to lead the world in financial transparency, proactively releasing some of the most detailed information on public money ever seen. We look forward to further developments in this area over the coming months, as the government moves beyond expenditure to focus on things like tax and company registries.

If you’re interested in exploring data on public spending, then you can join our openspending mailing list.

method="POST" class="form-inline">


City Spending Party around the world

Anders Pedersen - July 26, 2013 in Events, Featured, OKF Japan, OKF Nepal, Open Spending, Sprint / Hackday

nepal-spending-party

Last weekend more than a hundred budget nerds and engaged citizens gathered at 20 spending data parties to open up city spending and budgets. From Lagos to Kathmandu groups dived into budget data across the OpenSpending community as part of this first global City Spending Data Party from July 19 to July 21. The spending parties helped bring the number of cities on OpenSpending to 119. Here is our wrap up from the City Spending Data Party across the OpenSpending community.

Kathmandu

In Kathmandu, Open Knowledge Foundation Nepal organised a two day spending party for civic coders, journalists and students focusing on Kathmandu Metropolitan. Coders opened up the city budget from PDF-documents, while tackling tough language issues as documents were not published in nepali unicode. The team detected significant year to year rises in Infrastructure and Development spending as well as in the salaries of employees. On the last day for than 20 participants and journalists attended the presentation of the work. Read the full report from the Spending Party in Kathmandu here.

Lagos

In Lagos the amazing visualisation team at BudgIT hosted a spending party to compare several years of expenditure and revenue data from the city. The team used the spending time to code a tool that will help other groups to build more visualisations using data stored in OpenSpending.

openlagos

Tel Aviv and San Fransisco

As part of the City Spending Party, Hasadna organised hackathons between Tel Aviv and the Jewish community of San Francisco. In Israel 120 participants worked in six teams on open data projects. One of the teams worked on the Open Muni budget, which is a new app for municipal budgets developed by Hasadna. In San Francisco 60 people worked on two projects, one of which was the Open Muni project around budgetary data imports and translations.
The Hasadna team worked also with Marc Joffe and David Zbikowski on Californian city data from the Public Sector Credit project.

Toronto

Toronto-spending-hackathon

In Toronto Gabe Sawhney organised a hackathon focusing on the budget of the city as well as lobbyist registry data. The team parsed the 2012 city budget from a messy bunch of Excel files, and uploaded it to OpenSpending producing a treemap and as well as a visualization with d3.js (see dataviz above). Read the report from Toronto here.

Tokyo

The OpenSpending community of the Open Knowledge Foundation Local Group Japan is rapidly growing and threw a full scale one and a half day spending party at Yahoo Japan. There were 50 participants from across the country, including elected officials from three local prefectures around Tokyo.

At the party 15 cities started loading data into OpenSpending and 8 cities completed their own Where Does My Money Go? site, which enables citizens to see where their taxes are spent locally. Koganei city created a spending site that invites citizens to comment on the budget, a model which was pioneered earlier this year by OpenBudgetOakland, another member of the OpenSpending community. The spending party also began taking on some of the more challenging issues. Japanese cities do not have coherent budget classifications the community will therefore begin to explore how budgets across cities can be compared. Coders at the spending party also made several contributions to the OpenSpending codebase and contributors from Open Knowledge Japan have taken on the important task of making the OpenSpending Satellite site more user friendly by adding several new features. The spending party was covered by the national broadcaster NHK and by the participants in their own Storify.

Is your city missing?

Besides the events featured above, the City Spending Party also included numerous projects from members taking their city budgets into their own hands with the help from the OpenSpending community. From Minsk to Brazil community members worked on city budgets, and one week after the spending party dots are still being added to the world map of cities. You can find the full list of participating groups here.

Is your city spending party missing from our wrap up? We still want to hear your spending party report! Or if you want to organise your own spending party, then get in touch.

Data Expedition: Tax Avoidance and Evasion – 6th June

Lisa Evans - May 24, 2013 in Open Spending, School of Data, Spending Stories

Tax expedition

Want to dig deep into tax avoidance and evasion? We have gathered a wide range of data on this sensitive topic and for one afternoon we’ll guide you through some of the key decisions to think about when writing a story on the topics. With tax evasion and tax avoidance currently such a hot topic in the media, it’s crucial that people can understand the difference between the two terms as well as the mechanisms by which they happen.

When: Thursday June 6th – 12:00 BST to 17:00 BST – link to your timezone

We’ll be looking for projects such as:

  • Exploring the tax avoidance schemes used by Apple, Google, Amazon, or Starbucks

  • Looking at data gathered by tax collection authorities and patterns of avoidance that emerge from that dataset

  • Creating a “most wanted” list tax evaders for future research

  • Your project here!

Sign up here for the Data Expedition!

Please note that limited space is available. For more information about the Data Expedition format, we encourage you to read this article.

How can I participate?

To get involved either:

  • Lead a team! (Up to 6 hours) Are you able to help to coordinate a team on the day? This involves, helping your team to understand the options and research that has been conducted and starting a discussion about the choice of story and how to construct a plan for making the story happen. The School of Data team will hold a specific hangout for team leads on Monday 3rd June at 12:00 BST to prepare for Thursday’s activities. Please email schoolofdata [at] okfn.org if you are interested in getting involved.

  • Offer an expert introduction! (Up to one hour) We’re looking for experts who understand the loopholes or tactics used by companies in different countries to offer quick introductions from 5-30 mins long to get the expedition started.

  • Join us as a participant on the day! (3-6 hours) You will need to be prepared to brainstorm ideas with others in your group and ultimately explain your choice of story. There will be two roles you can take on the day – either getting stuck into the data (analyst) or writing (storyteller).

Aims of the expedition

We will aim to give people:

  • A clear understanding of the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance
  • An key understanding of a few schemes via which people engage in them
  • Perhaps also a few story ideas!

How to get involved

Please make sure you are registered here and that you select “Tax Avoidance/Evasion” in the “I’m Interested in…” section. Please note: you will need to be available for at least 3 hours during the expedition period and spaces will be limited, so preference will be given to those who can definitely commit to the expedition. Spaces will be confirmed shortly before the expedition.

Stay up to date with the latest data expeditions

Want to be informed any time there is a new data expedition? Join the School of Data announcement list to get notifications of the expeditions as soon as they are announced!

IRS: Turn Over A New Leaf, Open Up Data

Beth Noveck - May 24, 2013 in Data Journalism, Open Spending, Spending Stories

The following post is co-authored by Stefan Verhulst and Beth Noveck. It is cross-posted from Forbes.com. If you’d like to learn more about tax data, check out our data expedition on tax evasion and avoidance on the 6th June!


The core task for Danny Werfel, the new acting commissioner of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), is to repair the agency’s tarnished reputation and achieve greater efficacy and fairness in IRS investigations. Mr. Werfel can show true leadership by restructuring how the IRS handles its tax-exempt enforcement processes.

People filing tax forms at the IRS in 1920.

One of Mr. Werfel’s first actions on the job should be the immediate implementation of the groundbreaking Presidential Executive Order and Open Data policy, released last week, that requires data captured and generated by the government be made available in open, machine-readable formats. Doing so will make the IRS a beacon to other agencies in how to use open data to screen any wrongdoing and strengthen law enforcement.

By sharing readily available IRS data on tax-exempt organizations, encouraging Congress to pass a budget proposal that mandates release of all tax-exempt returns in a machine-readable format, and increasing the transparency of its own processes, the agency can begin to turn the page on this scandal and help rebuild trust and partnership between government and its citizens.

Every year in the United States approximately 1.5 million registered tax-exempt organizations file a version of the “Form 990” with the IRS and state tax authorities. The 990 collects details on the financial, governance and organizational structure of America’s universities, hospitals, foundations, and charities to the end of ensuring that they are deserving of tax exempt status. We are missing an opportunity to analyze this data so that decisions about whom to investigate can be based on evidence rather than conjecture, on patterns rather than prejudice.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of the largest tax-exempt organizations are required to file their returns electronically. The IRS should release this data in bulk as a free database immediately. If the IRS were to make these 990 data available in a form that could be easily downloadable and processed by computer programs for visualization and statistical analysis, researchers could quickly do more extensive, in-depth empirical research to better understand the sector and spot fraud, waste and abuse more systematically. Knowing who runs a nonprofit can help detect fraud. Attorneys General have occasionally found the same person collecting full time salaries from several different nonprofits.

Check out the guide on tax avoidance and evasion from OpenSpending to find out more about how to follow the money.

While the IRS is using robo-audits, catching large evasions still happens mainly by happenstance. With open data, they could be detected, first, through computer analysis. By using technology to expand the regulator’s toolkit, it becomes possible to target limited enforcement resources to where problems really are. The Securities and Exchange Commission has, for instance, developed an improved capacity to detect and prevent insider trading more effectively by making public information computable and easier to mine. In addition, open data creates the means for government and citizens to collaborate on spotting problems. As the adage goes, with many eyes, all bugs are shallow.

Similarly, Form 990 requires charities to disclose loans to or from current and former officers. Making these and other transactions that correlate with instances of fraud like these would save government resources at the state and federal levels.

With a 990 database, it would also be easier to run queries to understand which executives receive the highest compensation. By combining 990 and other data, such as lobbying data, it might become possible to spot impermissible political activities.

President Obama’s 2014 budget calls for requiring all tax exempts to file electronically, but also requires that the IRS makes these already public returns available in a timely, machine-readable format. These data would create a corpus of open, computable information that could be used to understand where nonprofits are providing services and where there are gaps. Enabling more people and organizations to analyze, visualize, and mash up the data, creating a large public community that is interested in the nonprofit sector and can collaborate to find ways to improve it.

In sum, the data that the IRS collect about nonprofit organizations present a great opportunity to learn about the sector and make it more effective.

Making IRS data open won’t solve every problem; the recent scandal has proven that the IRS must be more transparent about both the information it collects, but also how it manages that information. A commitment on day one to share the data it collects in a machine readable manner would show true leadership by Mr. Werfel and help solidify the Obama administration’s legacy as an open government.


Stefaan G. Verhulst is the Chief Research and Development Officer of the Governance Laboratory @NYU (GovLab) where he is responsible for building a research foundation on how to transform governance using advances in science and technology.

Beth Noveck is Founder and Director of the Governance Laboratory. She served in the White House as the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and founder of the White House Open Government Initiative (2009-2011). She was appointed senior advisor for Open Government to the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. She is the author of “Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful.”

Follow the Money, Follow the Data

Martin Tisne - May 3, 2013 in Ideas and musings, Open Data, Open Government Data, Open Spending


The following guest post from Martin Tisné was first published on his personal blog.

Money tunnel by RambergMediaImages, CC-BY-SA on Flickr

Some thoughts which I hope may be helpful in advance of the ‘follow the data‘ hack day this week-end:

The open data sector has quite successfully focused on socially-relevant information: fixing potholes a la http://www.fixmystreet.com/, adopting fire hydrants a la http://adoptahydrant.org/. My sense is that the next frontier will be to free the data that can enable citizens, NGOs and journalists to hold their governments to account. What this will likely mean is engaging in issues such as data on extractives’ transparency, government contracting, political finance, budgeting etc. So far, these are not the bread and butter of the open data movement (which isn’t to say there aren’t great initiatives like http://openspending.org/). But they should be:

At its heart, this agenda revolves around ‘following the money’. Without knowing the ‘total resource flow’:

  • Parents’ associations cannot question the lack of textbooks in their schools by interrogating the school’s budget
  • Healthcare groups cannot access data related to local spending on doctors, nurses
  • Great orgs such as Open Knowledge Foundation or BudgIT cannot get the data they need for their interpretative tools (e.g. budget tracking tool)
  • Investigative journalists cannot access the data they need to pursue a story

Our field has sought to ‘follow the money’ for over two decades, but in practice we still lack the fundamental ability to trace funding flows from A to Z, across the revenue chain. We should be able to get to what aid transparency experts call ‘traceability’ (the ability to trace aid funds from the donor down the project level) for all, or at least most fiscal flows.

Open data enables this to happen. This is exciting: it’s about enabling follow the money to happen at scale. Up until now, instances of ‘following the money’ have been the fruit of the hard work of investigative journalists, in isolated instances.

If we can ensure that data on revenues (extractives, aid, tax etc), expenditures (from planning to allocation to spending to auditing), and results (service delivery data) is timely, accessible, comparable and comprehensive, we will have gone a long way to helping ‘follow the money’ efforts reach the scale they deserve.

Follow the Money is a pretty tangible concept (if you disagree, please let me know!) – it helps demonstrate how government funds buy specific outcomes, and how/whether resources are siphoned away. We need to now make it a reality.

Get Updates