Since early 2007 we’ve had a project dubbed ‘Where Does My Money Go?’ on the backburner. In a sentence, the project would be a web application that interactively represented UK government budgetary information using maps, timelines, and best of breed visualisation technologies.
We recently submitted the project to the Show Us A Better Way and Building Democracy competitions. It also has a project page on the OKF Wiki. If you’re interested in the project, or you have any suggestions – please feel free to get in touch!
From the proposal:
The British public have exceptional access to official documents and datasets detailing the operations of the official institutions around them. UKOP have catalogued 450,000 post-1980 records from over 2000 public bodies. Portals such as Directgov and National Statistics Online, in addition to the plethora of central, regional and local government department websites can furnish the layperson with a vast and diverse body of knowledge. However, the time and effort required to learn where to look for different pieces of information, and how to interpret what is found, may be substantial, and potentially off-putting.
A time-tested way of making large, complex bodies of ideas manageable is by representing them visually — whether in the form of maps, timelines, graphs, or charts. Visual representations, as aids, range from the exemplary practice of Harry Beck’s London tube map to the ubiquitous line graph used to supplement words in a paper or presentation. Visualisations combining different kinds of data are often used in the printed and televised media to illustrate broad patterns and trends — such as the animated graphics that accompany the BBC’s election coverage.
Recent developments in internet technologies over the past few years make it feasible to build an online visualisation service which would help citizens to find, explore, understand and re-use data made available by the government. Instead of visualisations generated by others to illustrate particular reports, data could be displayed in accordance with the interests of the user. Hence the user could see data from their region in national context, grasp the background to specific policies relevant to them more concretely and posit trends and patterns for themselves. The service would allow citizens to navigate through and engage with government information on their own terms by helping them to generate visual representations for themselves, by themselves.
We propose to initially focus on economic data. It would be an excellent basis for such a service for two reasons. Firstly, a great abundance of such information exists — every government office, department and council regularly publishes their accounts — and it is difficult to get an overview of where money is coming from and going. So, visual representations would be particularly useful in this area. Secondly, every citizen has economic transactions with the government, whether outgoing in the form of council or income taxation, or incoming in the form of benefits, allowances, loans or grants. So, these representations would have widespread tangible relevance.
Users of the service would be able to see where their own money is spent or where it comes from, as well as where money across government is spent and where it comes from. Existing government transparency would be built upon to help citizens discover their own part in government economic activity — thereby encouraging them to take a more active interest in, and a more thoroughly informed engagement with, the official institutions around them.
Dr. Jonathan Gray is Lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, where he is currently writing a book on data worlds. He is also Cofounder of the Public Data Lab; and Research Associate at the Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam) and the médialab (Sciences Po, Paris). More about his work can be found at jonathangray.org and he tweets at @jwyg.