The Act of Listening



The life of a business does not read like a strategic plan. It unfolds as things are discovered along the way. – Bill Barnett, Stanford Graduate School of Business

In the school of business especially when you run a start-up (a business or civic experiment tested on a small scale with potential to rapidly expand), one must learn to listen. This is because an entrepreneur is unknowingly juggling many balls in quick speed.

How to keep costs low; how and when  to expand volume; how to turn profitable; how to ensure that impact is sustained; when to scale and not scale; how every customer will be happy and become one’s unpaid evangelists; and also to meet aspirations of donors and investors and excite them to keep doing more.

Life itself is never stagnant, it is moving relative to a position. So if entrepreneurs or businesses are not really moving, others are moving ahead and keeping them in the backward position. For instance, a business can sit on a pile of cash happy that it is the key to the future. However, what if its business model is disrupted and new revenues cease? What if after the disruption by a newcomer, it has to start spending fast to catch up? What if all the cash is gone in a twinkle?

However, either in that speed of life or sense of comfort, an entrepreneur must take time to listen and examine everything that counts.

 I got a mail last week from one of BudgIT perennial impact investor. It was not the type of mail you get that serves you ice cream or makes you revel in those grand ballrooms of Windsor. It was a long mail that makes you think deeply what exactly are we doing.

  I came to that question, what really are we doing in BudgIT. Yes, we are trying to educate the people on the budget. Yes, we are thinking if citizens become more aware of public finance that can ask intelligent questions from their leaders and demand accountability. Yes, that we can gradually through sustained citizen demand, reform government and make it work for people. But built into this gospel of ours are lots of assumptions. There is also the wide scope we are tinkering with. We must consider what are we changing – the entire government? Who are we reaching – 170m people?

 Where are we in that long stretch and how many people do we need to raise their awareness to force government to reform and change? Will government ever change? Can we do this all alone? Should we settle for a small dent and slip into that traditional NGO mode of communiqués, press releases and workshops?

I believe that after building the enterprise, engineered through rigorous thinking, an entrepreneur must pause, listen and reflect it all. Lest you laugh to your joke, listen to your dying song and in the end drink your Kool Aid.

 As an entrepreneur, listen to the customers, peers, mentors, veterans, failed people in your field, investors and critics of any hue. The lifecycle of a business is that of continuous evaluation lest it stops to exist. Rigorous examination that agrees to dissent is needed to every functional segment of life. Those who accept criticism or listen to dissent are guaranteed an efficient lifecycle. An entrepreneur must both be a rigorous thinker and a listener and ready to sprint to action upon conviction.

Listening (not reading) to that email forced me to call for a strategy retreat for BudgIT. This will not be a stock-taking exercise of past glories or dancing in the klieg lights of new dreams but how we rethink why we are here. Why we need to rework our scope, our beneficiaries, our approach and impact model. It is part of the lifecycle – a moment to listen, pause and reflect.

 Loren, thanks a lot for the email.

 Image from

2015: NURTW Chairman & Us


 When it comes to deciding during elections, does the online crew or the social media gang really count? If we are to have an election today, can our opinion really swing the votes? I mean how much premium does the politician place on the votes of socially urban young Nigerians? Who matters more – the NURTW chairman, Iyaloja, Chairman Association of “anything informal”” and me?

I mean these are the ones who for a bar of soap, late night meal, employment in LASTMA, bus stop chairman, free bus rides for their children, yard of Ankara decide who they vote for. They are numbed to issues of accountability and with the politician in sight, all you hear is loud obeisance like “Baba Tuale”.

The politician is also in this cult mode as he makes his/her responsibility a privilege for the citizen. No one see that lens of how a politician was hired by the people to manage our economy and polity. In the same manner, a master can sack his house- help in cases of incompetence, theft or breach of agreement, we have the same power to ensure that elected officers should be booted out.

A screenshot of a piece by my former boss Ifeanyi Uddin

A screenshot of a piece by my former boss Ifeanyi Uddin

As a group of enlightened Nigerians, can we really enforce change when votes of a large group are so vulnerable to petty issues? Is it that we are so outnumbered and doing not enough that we can’t really tell the facts for these people?  I mean the vote placed in the hand of someone will decide who controls allocations, raises debt, writes laws on our behalf, represents us in international spaces, decide if we need nuclear codes or not, decide fuel prices and the manpower for public institutions. How come we leave such trivial matters to the large army of folks that trade it for a meal or choose which dividing lines to believe?

This how we are kept in the tangle of chicken and egg problem. This is how we wonder what really is the problem – the leader or the led. We must understand that this is a market with demand and supply sides. The politician is at the supply end and will only respond to forces of demand. If the politician knows that folks at the other end have their votes at a price and he/she can carry on without the enlightened few, the incentive is there to follow what works.

If the politician knows issues of ethnicity resonate with the voters, he plays the tribal card beclouding the majority as regarding his/her incompetence or disregard for transparency. If it is about a Christian Governor or Muslim President, the politician plays the religion card by posturing to be a good Christian visiting churches and asking for the prayers.

We are the ones at fault. We wax abstract approach on changing Nigeria like we can finance logistics for a local councillorship election.  We don’t actively join political parties thereby making meaningful impact. We don’t stay on the other side of the market to keep amplifying our voices.

In 2015, we need to explain what a vote means to everyone because the politician is just following the trend – poverty, ethnicity, inferiority complex etc. The incentive of the politician is to grab power and if he/she finds a gaping hole to be exploited, he/she thrives on it.

So its left for us to creatively think how will people of the streets understand that voting is a decision that vests their authority on an elected officials and they are also making such decision on behalf of under-18 population who can’t vote. It is left to us to disabuse those that label us Christians, Muslims, Northerners or Southerners.

How do we meet them at the half way? Get Saheed Osupa and Alabi Pasuma to do a track laced with a viral slang on voters education?  How do you get them to understand the roles of vigilance and untiring demand of accountability? This is our role. We are not doing enough and nothing will rapidly change as keep typing away. 

Disrupting May Day Rally

Gbenga Sesan's tweet on June 22, 2013. June last year, Gbenga Sesan and I met a senior US diplomat and above were his words to us.

Gbenga Sesan’s tweet on June 22, 2013. June last year, Gbenga Sesan and I met a senior US diplomat and above were his words to us.

It is 0930 on May Day. I was trying hard to close an infographic. The designer was not just getting it right. I was so ready in “spirit”. I wanted leash my full anger as I looked the stream of tweets on the Lagos protest to bring back our girls. I learnt that the canisters of tear gas have been fired. I verily believe my good people will not despair.

Finally, I made it to the protest. The faces were obvious  - many amazing beacons of inspiration.  I tried to count we the protesters; we were not up to 234. Suddenly the number strikes me again – 234 girls. I mean putting 20 football teams on a single pitch at the same time. The numbers have even inched up to 276 and one cannot even imagine the state of mind of these innocent, brave ones. When I looked at the other side of “town”, the Onikan Stadium where the Labour Day rally held, I felt overwhelmed.They were just having a great time with exchange of bottles of cheap gin and N1000 notes. A cluster of banners and flags raised high each announcing their organizations. The NURTW boys were in multiples in their traditional green and white colours.   A rough count puts them at least 500 times than we, the protesters. We were just outnumbered. When I tried to peer into the stadium looking into the sea of heads just unconcerned, I was in despair. I wished for an instant that we reverse scenarios; like we don’t care and they are the ones protesting.

 I was wondering how will they hear us? Do these people even listen to news? Do they know about kidnapped girls and Sambisa forest? We decided to change route and walk into the Stadium complex. At that moment I was getting very angry, pumping my fist in the air. Screaming at the Labour Day-happy folks  that can they afford their children away for 17 days? I flung the everything I had in the air. Teniola was just telling me to be calm. I was already drenched in sweat.

 Governor Fashola looked at us for a second. He was now barely audible and he quickly finished his speech. The Governor stood still ready to take the parade. We, less than 200 in the midst of over 5,000 people, wont just allow the parade. We did not move an inch for them. They could not find their way. We were screaming and the Governor just looked helpless at a point. Maybe because we weaved our message with “stolen dreams”, a lot of folks still looked on, unclear about what we were passing across. However, constant honking it in their ears, they finally got it.

Some called us students. Some came to accept understanding and sink into deep thoughts about our worthy cause. Some were asking “How much were we paid?”

A nice way to end with Fela “Me and you no dey same category” A gust of  happiness mixed with sadness. This is not victory. Victory is bringing back the girls alive form Sambisa Forest. However, this is instructive, what we need is a tireless minority. We are the ones standing the in gap. The NLC wont shut offices unless its a drain on their pocket like fuel subsidy or minimum wage gets shortened. Everyone thrives on personal incentives, disregarding the crisis our commonality.

 The elites in the upper notch are incentivized not to care. The ones in the lower cadre are fed with a buffet of ignorance mixed with ethnicity and acute passiveness. The enlightened class liberates the nation, they are the ones that shine light and raise the expectations of the critical mass. We just need more committed people who trample on comfort and ease and clearly understand how this is all connected. People who are quickened to act and will not be indifferent.  Nigeria of our lifetime will be better than it was. God bless you brave Nigerians.

I believe the girls will come back alive. Belief – the staple that incompetent leaders keeps feeding me. That’s all I have got. This time I hope it is enough. I pray victory comes quick. Like the small victory of #FreeCiaxon, we another hashtag.

Data: Size is not everything



It is called drinking your Kool Aid – wrongly taking new insight as gospel because of an “uncommon” revelation in data.  Data can easily mislead users if certain factors that matter to its integrity are not considered. Imagine polling 1,000 respondents from South-South region asking them who will be the next Nigerian President. The result will easily throw up Goodluck Jonathan. You might also get same result if you mix that group with a sample of people who believe that the woes of his administration are tied to the desperate return of the Northern oligarchy or the President’s kinsmen living in urban areas.  You might get a reverse result if you pitch with Northern commoners or those who feel President Jonathan has been weak as regards being indecisive on corruption issues.

To question the FutureForNG released polls, it will be good if they have an exhaust of metadata, mine it and release it for the public. Who are the respondents that chose Buhari? Twitter users, Facebook users who live in Lagos, Twitter users who are Northerners who live in the Lagos. What were the chances that the South-East folks knew about this? How many came via sms, email or social media? How many of such respondents vote? How many voted from the diaspora and are the respondents a fair representation of the voting population that APC plans to attract? How many respondents voted  using multiple numbers?

The above posers are to rinse data because as the size gets bigger, data points multiply. This leads to the understanding that in every polling, size is not everything. One needs large diversity to get quality feedback from a wide set of respondents that are representative enough for the final actors – the voters.


This is a challenge that we will also contend with in the new era of Big Data. The rigorous approach to peer on the entire data footprint is the new cool. This will lead to overlooking certain connections in the broad way of data unless we are capable of exploring every node at a machine-scale.

I am interested in detailed  and comprehensive data but when it comes to polling, is it really a matter of size? How efficient is the profiling of the respondents because based on the sample question, typical profile of respondents is subject to change.  You might need a grassroots Northern voter, South East elite, Northern Central middle class profile for an election sample.

Ethnicity might be highly weighted based on previous block voting across regions but taking a poll on inequality will involve citizens better classified according to their  income levels. Diversity of respondents is key in polling especially for the elections.

My few thoughts. Just a word of caution.

Picture source:

The Work is Never Done




If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress. – Barack Obama

I like to tell my story. The world is a story.  Our life is a story – a story between two eternities – birth and death.I mean right from the creation with powerful lessons of sequence, you can see how the story goes till rest on the seventh day.

My story is about that of persistence. I have been within an ecosystem and I see people give up and throw in the towel. Folks begin a startup with raised dreams. That funds will pour in fast pace and life will go on a freewheel. Then the bugbears appear till they give up and go back to ease and comfort.

If you think that VC (venture capitalists) will just drop dead at your idea and empty his pocket, it might not just happen. Even for those with civic ideas, the donor will not just fall for one-minute pitch. After serious exchange of emails and awkward questioning of impact, that’s when the funds might finally come. At times, it might not even come. To get a grant, I to exchange at least 65 emails. It’s never that easy. Now with committed revenues (grants and services) of over N60m within a year, the work is still never done. We have to keep meeting donors and client demand. Salary and payments for consultancy are at least N1.5m per month and we have to keep doing it right.

Money is just an exchange of value. As long as you are trying to unlock value, it will finally be worth it. I have slept in the couch of developers for days. I have looked for wi-fi in Lome to send that last email, lost sleep, food, friendships, privacy etc. I have been abused as a workaholic.

The fears will not disappear, you have to acknowledge them. Will the funds stop? Will we ever stop producing value? Valid questions. It must never stop us from trying. Dont ever stop, the cost of giving up is too huge in the midst of nothingness. You were chosen as the steward of the times to fulfill a purpose.

Keep pressing on. I also keep pressing on.

Lessons from the Guttenberg Press

An acknowledged game changer in the history of mankind including the telegraph, Menlo Park, Singer machine, transistors and penicillin is the Guttenberg press. In this age which chastens us  to do less paperwork and save the trees, printed texts were once exclusive and a product of relentless toil.

In a typical Catholic Church till the mid-1400s, monasteries labour for years to ink the Bible on rolls of papyrus, locked in the library and only read aloud to the faithful during services. Owning the Bible seemed impossible, limiting the intercourse of knowledge between the Church leadership and its congregants. Such lack of quick access to canticles of Bible was the burden of Martin Luther in 1517 especially in the sale of indulgences, which was already being abused by the appointees of the Pope. In those days, if you committed a sin, you can seek temporal punishment by buying indulgences.

According to Wikipedia:  Professional “pardoners” (quaestores) - who were sent to collect alms for a specific project – practiced the unrestricted sale of indulgences. Many of these quaestores exceeded official Church doctrine, whether in avarice or ignorant zeal, and promised rewards like salvation from eternal damnation in return for money.With the permission of the Church, indulgences also became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, such as Crusades and cathedrals, by keeping a significant portion of the money raised from indulgences in their lands. There was a tendency to forge documents declaring that indulgences had been granted. Indulgences grew to extraordinary magnitude, in terms of longevity and breadth of forgiveness.

The abuse of indulgences irritated Martin Luther – a German Priest – and he wanted to end this practice. However, how do you raise a mass movement of people to support  your idea when the means to distribute literature or even references to the Bible were limited? To disrupt Papal order on sale of indulgences, he needed induction of a large class who were ready to send a deafening toll across the Vatican.

Jan Hus, the Czech Priest who sought to end indulgences as it were, was burnt at stake in 1415 after unwilling to recant his conviction to the Catholic Church. Such was the fate Martin Luther could suffer with his disruptive attempt to question the sale of indulgences and raise a storm in the church.

Bathing in the Zeitgiest, a young man Johannes Gutenberg was already building moveable printing press that churns out printed document and gradually makes them ubiquitous. All Martin Luther needed to do was to print his 95 theses (the statement of his conviction) using Guttenberg Press,  and tack them on the doorpost of Wittenberg chapel. He could have been burnt at stake, suffering the fate of a rebel in the past.

In few months that Martin Luther raised his objection to the Church practices, his documents was flying around Europe and the disruption was near. The information was distributed. The effect will be revolutionary.

The power of fast-paced distributed flow of information is one that quickens my mind especially  the non-linearity of its outcome. Knowledge has never been at its cheapest and  the Internet enabling it can be counted as our own Guttenberg press of our moment. This distributive medium is the large channel that churns out information and serves as leveler irrespective of time and space. To democratize information via digital tools presents an opportunity that can lead to better outcomes in the society that we operate.

One of the greatest danger democracy is information inequity. People deserve to know more being co-participants but elected rulers ride on their ignorance or play the ethnic card to create fiefdoms. This leads to a scenario of where elected leaders are not seen as custodians of vested powers but as rulers. Such approach makes them think public projects are privileges not their account of stewardship. It makes them cringe once you demand accountability. Completing the feedback loop of budget and public projects is key to my organization (BudgIT) that has worked to improve budget access in Nigeria.

People share photos, videos, writing via the Internet and at BudgIT I also believe we can make budget tracking the basis for social interaction. At BudgIT, we have decided to test that through our application in works called Tracka.  The whole essence is to deepen the conversation about public data and we have Internet as the superhighway already begging for us to effectively use it. Using mobile phones and web, we believe we can aggregate interests and trickle down the narrative to those still not connected to the online space. This is our Guttenberg press  moment, we don’t need a Martin Luther to steer us. We need a tireless minority who are connected and believe they can peer into data and begin conversations for a better society.

2013: The Unfinished Sketch

For he was [waiting expectantly and confidently] looking forward to the city which hasfixed and firm foundations, whose Architect and Builder is God. Hebrews 11:10 AMP

I want my place under the sun but that won’t come in  the camp of the undecided, who sit on the fence of passiveness. One must come to the construction site of life, watch the Master mount the bullet-proof bricks. It was about me peering at His sketch, which gradually unravels the ongoing city I am forever living in. If 2012 was the rise of the euphoria with the awards and recognitions with the effort of BudgIT, 2013 was about focusing on what I thought was the “The Big Thing That Matters”.

The Big Thing. That I can’t do this alone and I will need capable hands to join me is obvious.  These co-workers in the civic minefield ridden with apathy and institutional belligerence will need to be paid asc ovenanted. BudgIT can’t function on empty account balance with deafening echoes nor with piecemeal handed over by the lifelong bosses at Co-Creation Hub. It was the “big deal”. The Cash Nexus. The oxygen of the enterprise. The oxygen, felt but not seen, brought by the Master, to keep us breathing.

In 2013, I stood on a city whose Architect and Builder is God, discovering each day this dazzling fortress is all I ever wanted. I am still gazing at that unfinished city in my overalls, plastic cap, rubber boots and work tools, observing the Master mount the bricks with riveting patterns.  I won’t belong to the camp whose narrative is to shove 2013 away in pit telling it to quicken its rot, I will rather be grateful to live this amazing year that has left me in the awe of God’s perfection of both design and creation.

I have not yet reached that moment of epiphany when the ceiling is broken and one can only mount the ladder backwards. I mean “we”are still rising because “the work of a change-maker is never done”. There are still unfinished battles in the line of my present calling to raise active citizens to make sure public budgets deliver quality and efficient service.

2013 will make one think of Kenya’s shopping mall siege, Boston bombing as athletes raced to finish the line, the transition of Nelson Mandela, the intellectual fisticuffs in the US Congress, the humane spirit of Pope Francis, the uncontrolled leaks of Edward Snowden, the legendary bow of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford and many others that won’t fill this space. If look at the Nigeria – the patchwork of the British about to clock the centenary -, you will see politics in red-hot coal. Politicians, stock of thes ame root, are in a tug of war pulling themselves over to their turf. APC – change – is a living parable of a dog and its vomit. Excess Crude Account spiraled down, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala repented on the recurrent-capital mix, NNPC opaque structure gets iron cast, power sector oligarchs emerge, Stella Oduah can’t ride the 255m BMW in peace, the Oga-the-Top & Go-and –Die comedy shows. As expected in a year, it was spellbinding intrigues and I am happy to live it.

When I look into the rear, what were those secret wishes of mine that can’t fathom in the mesmeric design of my Master? I am exhausted of Indomie girl at dusk waiting for me to pay my toll for another supper. Tired to leave the emptiness of bed to fit myself into the sofa. I relish waking up each other with a mild hit, telling her “Dearie, the sun is up again”.

I mean when I see lovebirds hang together in the midst of somersaulting butterflies, I leap within my spirit, this is the Big Thing that matters. I mean reading Olusola Fasan write “Walking that aisle to meet you (her hubby) was a long awaited dream! And I’ve enjoyed every part of that dream so far”. I mean those who are not in the awe of the new funding round for their startup nor excited by the Donor’s payment that energizes the city. They are happy because they found love and love found them.

Goodbye 2013, your task was well done.

Influence : God

Friend of the Year: Seun Fakuade (a co-worker in the civic space)

New Friend of the Year: Segun Adeniyi (Amazing talent that builds our infographics)

Book of  the Year : King Leopold’s Ghost (an account of the Belgian King inhumane acts)

Facebook Friend of the Year: Olumide Idowu (for tirelessly liking my Facebook posts)

Tweep of the Year: @DoubleEph (His analysis holds me spellbound even with 3,000 word essay)

Person of the Year: Olusegun Dada (Great promise. Great work on the state budgets)

Happiest Moment of the Year: BudgIT’s first major grant by OSIWA

Saddest day of the Year: Things happened for us not to us.

Song of the Year:  Jesus Be The Center – Israel Houghton


I have decided to take out the last paragraph of this note. I grossly misrepresented issues which I deeply regret. I am in a relationship with a lady that I love -Dolapo-  and I wish the best of things to come in accordance to God’s will. I met her on June 26th, 2013 and I have taken lifelong lessons on how to be a man, father and husband. Everyday, I find I lack huge skills with out casual and transactional mindset to marriage. God bless her for enduring my missteps. 2013 was not complete without her. I feel a swarm of butterflies around me. 

Dominoes in Pleasant Places

Last year, I stood in front of a massive congress in Helsinki speaking about BudgIT -  the startup that sends a rush to my head and makes the account officer have a “crush”. It wasn’t a moment of epiphany, BudgIT movement was just about to go full blast.  I was exiting the bank to a curious world of budget transparency and I knew it will be life like a loaded gun. The trigger has to be faulty.  Days when I peered at my boss in First Bank before I sneaked that tweet was over.  I will be polluting their stream hoping someone gets a reason government finances is not a tough crossword puzzle. That how government finances work can leave the posh palaces of the analyst to the factory floor of young people who earnestly deserve change.

But change can be swift as I have experienced between the 27th and 28th birthday celebrations of my life. Once a banker, you thought I had money?  I was broke mehn. You can extract testimonies from my live-in friends.  Put funds on experiments to save the earth (Green Acs), bragging with an EOD bought with dual bank debts, I was at the crash  gate. I could not go lower. To quit the bank won’t  make it worse, I was launching into my full measure of happiness.

It was tough at the beginning. However, there was only one way to go – forward.  Finally, it was freedom, a gust of wind and it was the kind you get when you toil all night. It is of  a face soaked in hope finally finding his place under the sun.

I just want to do things better and  shine light in corners less understood. I am humbled that my kernel were cracked by gentle spirits and also grateful that I am the steward  of an idea who time has come. Someone else would have done BudgIT but bathing in the Zeitgeist,  here am I living my true calling. I keep thinking civic education, the liberation of minds sold to narrow narrative of a thieving elite is the way. We shall surely get there as long as we don’t wait for the rush but  gather into a whole, the trickle from the tap.

The special mention this year will go to my former employers – First Bank of Nigeria. Though, I wasn’t promoted in 3.33 years of working  with the “elephant”, the knowledge I gleaned was timeless and  those nifty skills work for me still. I want to thank my God Almighty, family, friends and you who won’t stop believing in me. You say I’m 28 and still single? I will be proposing soon when her “Yes” deafens me. We can then both giggle in an echo chamber . Life like the full 28 dominoes taken off the pack, stacked on each other, it is falling in pleasant places.

Re: Markets and Morality by Lanre Olagunju

My good friend Lanre Olagunju, a free market adherent believes that  the majestic clockwork of the market gravitates towards prosperity and abundance. That the concept of free market is pristine and only the external actions of men as evidenced by greed distort it. How do we tell this to folks who far off the American dream of home ownership, went in bed with bankers and got stuck  in the debt they won’t pay in a lifetime? How would we convince coal miners in Wales who will like to trample on Margaret Thatcher’s ashes because she left them bare to the fangs of the markets?  The market rewards greed – a sprint race to corner the profits, walk out of the door and slam it against the approaching next man. It is not only because the man is greedy in its brutish nature but because no other opportunity is seemingly so easy and harmless for greed to thrive than the one advanced by free market. It is the absolute opportunity in the greed that the free markets provide as seen in other economic ideologies that hangs a millstone on its moral compass.

According to Adam Smith, we are meant to believe that the unseen hand of the market converts individual act of selfishness into socially desirable outcomes. That there is a selfish imperative for the individual if the market is to function.  Greed and fear is revealed between a borrower and saver respectively is the basic swing of the society structure. However for a free market to live to its best function, there should be no cloud on the underpinning factors – price, competition and incentives. In myth of the free markets, prices are based on sound fundamentals and derived from a competitive turf with the right incentive to both parties.

In reality, the rush by every party is to maximize gain  can be cruel as seen of monopoly, information asymmetry or bloated incentives. Imagine I meet a trader to buy a LG Television in Tejuoso who says the product is original.  He also swore that he didn’t make a dime of profit on the transaction but sold it at a give-away price. However, when I got home, the fake product malfunctions. Though it was a free market with voluntary transactions, he maximized profit based on the information solely known to him. He also had an incentive to do so because the gain was great. If I also knew it was fake, I could have bought it for a tenth of the price.  Do we agree the market is ever free?

Imagine in 2000, we analysed what our telecoms boom will be and the eagerness of the Nigerian  to buy recharge cards, would we have sold our telecoms licenses so cheap and given bogus tax holidays? So do we have equal information to make the best judgment that transmutes to socially desirable outcomes? Free markets leaves chances for individuals to engineer its own ruin. Nigerian banks incursion into the stock markets was left to its devices and like a train on a full horn, its wreckage can be retold.

Free market favours the brave momentarily and in that matter of the brave to corner the glory, it might punching hard on the weak. A company wants to build monopoly or transform into an organised cartel who fixes the price and abolishes the concept of free market. A company discounting the environmental consequences of its operations on a pedestal of free market might be declaring huge profits and poisoning the stream that leads to a community.  In every economic activity, there is a private value and social value of any economic activity, however free market traders discount the latter.  The discounting  in the social value of transaction ends in bust and boom cycles, spillovers, environmental degradation and other externalities.

The unregulated sub-prime market was too tempting because the levers of control were withdrawn on the altars of free market and its  ruins is plastered in history. While the world will no more believe in the destructive tendencies of communism or socialism, never forget that these ideologies were never meant to breed psychopaths like Stalin, it was the opportunity of central control even for the meanest time that brought greed to bear. Leadership structure or an external visible hand was supposed to transmute communism into a state of equilibrium where all workers/parties are equal, each according to its own ability/interest, symptomatic to free markets.

Crisis lies in the opportunity oozing from the supply end of free markets and other sets of absolute economic ideologies . Microsoft would wish no one else in a software business. Google would wish we had no search alternative and so on for every brand. However, competition and incentives are  the pride of the free market but it must be hinged on  fair rules and vigilance to breed and protect  innovation. Can a large company take opportunities in free markets to advance monopoly by crowding out its new challengers?

We must abolish the naked opportunity to individuals and entities to overreach their greed and cause disharmony to the society. That’s why the government as an external factor is prime. Social democracies in Scandinavian countries are example of how to contain the godless contraption of free market with the hands of government. While I don’t believe in excessive control, the rules must be clear with punishments that guarantee non-repetition of breach.

But clearly the complex between the markets and government grows in our face. Here comes the question that after the global economic crisis premised on the greed on bankers and mortgage lenders to sell toxic products, has there been adequate punishment? Who are the biggest donors to democracies and why do governments who worship at the altar of free markets stepped in  to socialize risk while  capitalists made away with gains in boom times? Did the bogus bank executive bonus not end up in the echo chamber? Why would we want a system that discounts government ability to temper the perennial cycles that distorts harmony and stability that our world requires? The worries are always on how much government control could be but do we know how much greed can bring disequilibrium and inequity free market system? I don’t believe in absolutes. We have seen amazing technology such as Internet, space technology and medical research wholly funded by government.  As written by Lanre, I also believe in the amazing power of markets but that myth of it being is free is what I dissent. Not that I lack conviction by not standing by an ideology,  I just tend towards pragmatism, asking  myself what works in a situation. The facts keeps changing and I ask myself, what do I do sir?

I also change my mind.

Open Data : Amplifying the Voices

A cliché says that the easiest way to hide something from common folks is to put it in a book. Nigerian budgets as an example has always been in a ‘book’ – thick reams of pdfs difficult to mine and understand. However, most citizens without requisite knowledge in public finance or low level of interest will still be lost either data is published in non-readable or open formats. It clearly tells that open data is a means and enabler to the functional and self-accounting society we desire.

Notwithstanding, publishing data in open format is a huge step for the developers, data miners and geeks  to build ‘double helix of civic awesomeness’. The core task lies in harnessing open data for public usage and most especially how it drives to institutional reform, inclusive growth and improved service delivery. Open data is a correctional tool  and enabler for a society that requires transparency, accountability, institutional efficiency and improved citizen engagement.  A lot of work is needed at the both the supply side and demand side of open data to translate improvement. Based on a personal review of my startup (BudgIT) activities, I consider the following as critical for citizens to effectively harness open data

1.       Open Data must Actionable: To stay with the definition of Open Data is to strip it of its potential. A key aspect of open data is its power to initiate action. Data needs to move from being at a macro-level which is ideal for economists and public finance gurus to a deep-down stage where citizens and civil society can clearly ask questions. A typical example will be to see budget not released on ‘open’ format on abstract items such as infrastructure allocation or education spending. It must go deep down to the last possible unit where every veil of secrecy is torn and objective questions can be put forward. The World Bank Open Finances is a bright example.

2.       Educate the Citizens: Based on the society where I work, I seriously contend with a chain of literacy span. There is need for clearer definition of terms surrounding the data published in open formats. Getting granular with the context of the data is most critical to build a mass of followership that understands thematic areas in view. For example, in public finance items such as Recurrent or Capital Expenditure will need simplified definitions to encourage core understanding by users. This is highly necessary when building visualizations and infographics.  Citizens still need background information to clearly ask questions

3.       An Incentive for Citizen: Open Data needs to be citizen-centered. Applying Adam Smith phrase in the Wealth of Nations stated as “by pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it” is required in open data engagement strategy. There is a need to focus on building open data right to the mind of the individual on things that matters to him/her. If open data and its visualisations stay at the macro level and not built to focus on a citizen, it may have communicated too little. For example, public finance data needs to be crunched to an extent when the citizen is aware of capital projects and revenue allocations within  his/her neighbourhood. He/she is most likely to harness the power of open data and properly ask questions or trigger a debate through access to such personalized information

4.       Tell  A Story:  Open Data must tell a story to stimulate larger interests with the community. With visualizations built around it, it must shine light on winding corners. It must bring forth human angle stories  by converting stack of information to a moving narrative that drives a sense of ownership in the user. Working with Nigeria oil revenue equals to billions of US Dollars. Publishing such data in open formats must stretch further to describe the purchasing power of such huge amounts for citizens who barely rake in less than $5,000 annually. Lost in the ‘haystack’ of open data, citizens need a common thread to interprete the datasets.

 5.       Get Feedback to Institutions: Open Data cannot be driven on a one-way lane. Access to data is n’t enough. It must be linked with a feedback system that allows citizens or users to reach elected officials, public servants and other stakeholders at the supply side. Debate, discussions and comments emanating based on interaction with open data and its visualizations has to reach the required institution responsible for data or project improvement. An open finance data will need a feedback system attached to the head of implementing agency,  the legislator representing the area which project is located and possibly the finance ministry expected to disburse the fund. Such is the power of the open data and that citizens believe someone at the government institution end connects with their concerns.

These ideas are mined out of my new thoughts on driving open data in Nigeria most especially to amplify citizen voices in their demand for institutional reform and improved service delivery. This will be crucial to the revamp of BudgIT desktop and mobile web platforms and our engagement model with citizens in the short term. I also feel it is worth considering for open data initiatives springing up across the globe.

Oluseun Onigbinde, an Ashoka Fellow is the Co-Founder of BudgIT, a Nigerian startup using creative technology to represent budgets and public data.