What does it look like when spending research is tailored directly to its audience? BudgIT, a Nigerian startup building public engagement with spending data, has done exactly that, making Nigerian spending more accessible by targeting social media. BudgIT is a valuable case study in data-driven online engagement.
Data is invaluable. To the uninformed person where an information asymmetry thrives, access to data illuminates the path to facts and provokes emotions that trigger results.
Poor handling of data, however, puts valuable facts in an opaque structure that communicates nothing. Data lost in a maze of thick documentation riddled with complex terms or iterations of figures doesn’t connect the user. Without being able to promote discussion or provide contextual understanding, data is worthless.
Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 after long years of military rule. Data under the barrel of the gun was an exclusive preserve of rulers, as probing the facts behind data was taken as an affront to authority and an attempt to question the stained reputation of the junta. Civil servants were bound by the Official Secrets Act not to share government information, thereby putting the citizens in the dark.
Even after thirteen years of return to democracy, there is clearly a gap in accessing public data, with some government officials still stricken with a military-era hangover. Data on public expenditure in particular communicates little to the larger sections of public, who are not versed in financial accounting nor have the requisite understanding to evaluate the complex arithmetic.
BudgIT is a creative startup that sees a huge opportunity in using data visualization to stimulate interest in public expenditure. Understanding the ubiquity of the mobile device within the Nigerian locality and the increasing number of Nigerians online, BudgIT sees the opportunity to engage Nigerians and explain public expenditure in a simpler way. BudgIT's plan thrives on building engagement across all platforms, encouraging the community to action via NGOs, and reaching out to everyone to promote citizen participation. BudgIT's work is about making public data a social object and building an extensive network that demands change.
Across our interactions with users, we see a gulf in understanding what the budget is and what citizens usually expect. We have engaged over 10,000 Nigerians over the budget, and we have profiled them into three categories to ensure that optimum value is delivered. The categories are briefly explained below:
Across every society lies a literacy span, and engaging every component is critical to societal growth and stability. Every life has a storyboard that volumes of data can be matched with. People always want to be more informed, especially concerning issues that they find difficult to understand.
Engaging citizens is means making a critical analysis of the target users at a specific point in time and optimizing for their possible profiles. A look at user profile demands a thorough analysis of their empathy and attention for and insight into the data available to them. What does the Nigerian citizen care about? Where is the information gap? How quickly can we reach out to them and place data in the storyboard of their lives? A critical understanding of the user’s psychology and the perceived response to the data is the first needed level of analysis.
BudgIT’s immediate reach is to the average literate Nigerian connected to online forums and social media. Most online users—amidst their array of interests in gaming, reading, and sharing social connections, which leaves a limited timeframe—will definitely need data in a brief and concise form. After presenting a snapshot of the data, either as a tweet or an infographic, there's an opportunity to build linked data on other platforms where the big picture can be set and interaction can be enhanced.
An important aspect of visualization, for us, is understanding the data appreciation level of the users. Complex diagrams, superb infographics, and aesthetic interactive applications might not convey the right meaning to the user, depending on his or her approach to data. Data vizualization needs to take into consideration how easily users can grasp the vizualized data and subject it to personal interpretation. A good visualization transfers knowledge and, most importantly, brings forth a story the user can easily connect with.
For us in BudgIT, our engagement model is anchored on the following:
After making public expenditure data available in an easy-to-read format, as shown on our portal, we have reached out to citizens through civil society organizations to ensure that they can monitor capital projects in the budget.
We also plan to develop a participatory framework where citizens and government institutions can meet in town halls to determine key items in the budget that need to be prioritized. Once we get citizens to be aware of capital projects in the budget and connect them with civil societies where BudgIT is not located, citizens can track report projects and report status. Ensuring that citizens of any literacy are armed with data and possess a clear path to demand action, BudgIT is crossing the rubicon from open data to open action.
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