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.