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How participatory budgeting can transform community engagement – An interview with Amir Campos

- June 2, 2017 in Interviews, OpenBudgets, OpenSpending

For most municipalities, participatory budgeting is a relatively new approach to include their citizens directly in the decision making for new investments and developments in their community. Fundación Civio is a civic tech organisation based in Madrid, Spain that develops tools for citizens that both reveal the civic value of data and promote transparency. The organisation has developed an online platform for participatory budgeting processes, both for voting and monitoring incoming proposals, that is currently being tested in three Spanish municipalities. Diana Krebs (Project Manager for Fiscal Projects at OKI) talked with Amir Campos, project officer at Fundación Civio, on how tech solutions can help to make participatory budgeting a sustainable process in communities and what is needed beyond from a non-tech point of view.

Amir Campos, Project officer at Fundación Civio

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a relatively new form for municipalities to engage with their citizens. You developed an online platform to help to make the participatory process easier. How can this help in order to turn PB in an integrative part of community life? Participatory budgets are born with the desire to democratise power at a local level, to “municipalise the State”, with a clear objective, that these actions at local level serve as an example at a regional and national level and foster change in State participation and investment policies. This aim for the democratisation of power also represents a struggle for a better distribution of wealth, giving voice to the citizens, taking them out of political anonymity every year, making local investment’s needs visible much faster than any traditional electoral process. Participatory budgeting is a tough citizen’s marking of their local representatives. The tool we have designed is powerful but easy to use because we have avoided the development of a tool that only technical people would use. Users are able to upload their own data (submitting or voting proposals, comments, feedback, etc. in order to generate discussions, voting processes, announcements, visualisations, etc.) It has a more visual approach that clearly differentiates our solution from existing solutions and gives further value to it. Our tool is targeted at administrators, users and policy makers without advanced technical skills and it is online, presented as Software as a Service (SaaS), avoiding the need for users to download or install any special software. All in all, out tool, will bring the experience of taking part in a process of participatory budgeting closer to all citizens. Once registered, its user-friendliness and visual features will keep users connected, not only to vote proposals but also to monitor and share them, while exercising effective decision-making actions and redistributing available resources in their municipality. Along with off-line participatory processes, this platform gives voice to citizens, vote and also gives them the possibility of making their public representatives more accountable through its monitoring capabilities. The final aim is to enable real participatory experiences, providing solutions that are easy to implement by all stakeholders involved, thus strengthening the democratic process.

Do you think that participatory budgeting is a concept that will be more successful in small communities, where the daily business is less ruled by political parties’ interest and more by consent of what the community needs (like new playgrounds or sports parks)? Or can it work in bigger communities such as Madrid as well? Of course! The smaller the community, the better the decision-making process, not only at the PB level but at all levels. Wherever there is a “feeling” of a community it is much easier to generate agreements oriented towards the common good. That is why in large cities there are always more than one PB process at the same time, one at the neighborhood level, and another at the municipal level (whole city), to engage people at the neighborhood level and push them to vote at the city level. Examples such as Paris or Madrid, which use on-line and off-line platforms use that division, instead, small town halls, such as Torrelodones, open just a single process for the whole municipality. All process need municipal representatives commitment and citizens engagement, connected to a culture of participation, for harvesting successful outcomes. Do you see a chance that PB might increase fiscal data literacy if communities are more involved in deciding on what the community should spend tax money on? Well, I am not sure about an improvement on fiscal data literacy, but I am absolutely convinced that citizens will better understand the budget cycle, concepts and the overall approval process. Currently, in most cases, budget preparation and approval has been a closed-door process within administrations. Municipal PB implementations will act as enabling processes for citizens to influence budget decisions, becoming actual stakeholders of the decision-making process and auditing budget compromised vs. actual spending and giving feedback to the administrations. Furthermore, projects implemented thanks to a PB will last longer since citizens will take on a commitment to the project implemented, their representatives and their peers with whom individuals will have to agree once and will easily renew this agreement. The educational resources available for citizens in the platform will help also to improve the degree of literacy. They provide online materials to better understand the budget period, terms used or how to influence and monitor the budget. What non-tech measures and commitments do a municipal council or parliament need to take so that participatory budgeting will become a long-term integrative part of citizens’ engagement? They will have to agree as a government. One of the key steps to maintain a Participatory Budgets initiative over time is to legislate on this so that, regardless of the party that governs the municipality, the Participatory Budgeting processes keep running and a long-lasting prevalence is achieved. Porto Alegre (Brazil) is a very good example of this; they have been redistributing their resources at the municipal level for the last 25 years. Fundación Civio is part of the EU H2020 project openbudgets.eu, where it collaborates with 8 other partners around topics of fiscal transparency.  

How can journalists best handle public fiscal data to produce data-driven stories? An interview with Nicolas Kayser-Bril

- May 16, 2017 in Data Journalism

Nicolas Kayser-Bril is the former CEO and co-founder of Journalism++ (J++), a group of investigative journalists that specialises in data-driven reporting. As part of OKI’s own involvement in Openbudgets.eu, we had the good fortune of working with  J++ on the question how public budget and spending data can be used to tackle corruption. In this short interview, Diana Krebs (Project Manager for Fiscal Projects at OKI) asked Nicolas about his experience on how journalists today can best handle public fiscal data to produce data-driven stories.   Are journalists today equipped to work with fiscal data such as budget and spending data? Different sorts of journalists use budget and spending data in different ways. Investigative outlets such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (of Panama-Papers fame) or investigative lone wolves such as Dirk Laabs (who investigated privatizations in East Germany) are very much able to seek and use such data. Most other types of journalists are not able to do so.   Where do you see the gaps? What kind of skill sets, technical and non-technical, do journalists need to have to write data-driven stories that stick and are water-proof? The largest gap is the lack of incentive. Very few journalists are tasked with investigating government spending and budgets. The ones who do, either because they are interested in the topic or because they are paid investigative journalists, sometimes lack the field-specific expertise that allows for quick judgments. One can only know what’s abnormal (and therefore newsworthy) if one knows what the normal state of things is. In public budgets, few journalists know what is normal and what’s not.   Do you think it’s helpful for journalists to, when in doubt, work closely with experts from the public administration to enhance their fiscal data knowledge? Journalists are trained to find experts to illustrate their articles or to provide information. It would help to have easy-to-reach experts on public funding that journalists could contact.   What are the ingredients for a sustainable increase of fiscal data knowledge among journalists, so that the public can be informed in a credible and informative way? These are two different issues; it would be a mistake to believe that the information the public receives is in any way linked to the work of journalists. This was true in the last century, when journalists were de facto intermediaries between what happened and reports of what had happened. (They were de facto intermediaries because all means of communication involved a need to package information for film, radio, TV or newspapers). For journalists to produce more content on budget and spending issues, they must be incentivised to do so by their organizations. This could mean for news organizations to shift their focus towards public accountability. Organizations that have, such as ProPublica in the USA and Correctiv in Germany, happen to employ journalists who know how to decipher budget data. For the public to be informed about public budget and spending, the availability of interesting and entertaining content on the issue would help. However, demand for such content could also be boosted by the administration, who could celebrate citizens who ask questions on public budgets, which is currently not the case. They could also teach the basics of how government – and government finance – works at school, which is barely done, when at all.   J++ has developed several projects around unlocking fiscal data such as Cookingbudgets.com, a quite serious satire tutorial webpage for journalists and civil society activists to look for budget stories in the public administration. Their latest coup is “The Good, the Bad and the Accountant”, an interactive online application that puts users in the shoes of a manager of a big cities to learn about and recognize patterns of corruption within the public administration.

New site SubsidyStories.eu shows where nearly 300bn of EU subsidies go across Europe

- March 9, 2017 in Money flows, News, Open Spending, OpenSpending

Open Knowledge Germany and Open Knowledge International launched SubsidyStories.eu: a database containing all recipients of EU Structural Funds, accounting for 292,9 Billion Euros of EU Subsidies.

The European Union allocates 44 % of its total 7-year budget through the European Structural Funds. Who received these funds – accounting for 347 Billion Euro from 2007 – 2013 and 477 Billion Euro from 2014 – 2020 – could only be traced through regional and local websites. Subsidystories.eu changes this by integrating all regional datasets into one database with all recipients of the European Structural and Investment Funds from 2007 onwards.

“SubsidyStories is a major leap forward in bringing transparency to the spending of EU funds,” said Dr Ronny Patz, a researcher focused on budgeting in the European Union and in the United Nations system at the Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität (LMU) in Munich. “For years, advocates have asked the EU Commission and EU member state governments to create a single website for all EU Structural and Investment Funds, but where they have failed, civil society now steps in.”

Subsidystories.eu makes the recipients of the largest EU subsidies program visible across Europe. Recent and future debates on EU spending will benefit from the factual basis offered by the project, as spending on the member state, regional and local level can be traced. Subsidystories.eu makes it possible to check which projects and organisations are receiving money and how it is spent across Europe. For example, the amounts given per project are vastly different per country; in Poland, the average sum per project is 381 664  € whereas in Italy this is only 63 539 €.

The data can be compared throughout the EU enabling a thorough analysis of EU spending patterns. Subsidystories.eu gives scientists, journalists and interested citizens the direct possibility of visualising data and running data analytics using SQL. The data can be directly downloaded to CSV for the entire European Union or for specific countries.

Beneficiary data, which was previously scattered across the EU in different languages and formats, had to be opened, scraped, cleaned and standardised to allow for cross-country comparisons and detailed searches. That we are now able to run detailed searches, aggregate projects per beneficiary and across countries, is a big step for financial transparency in Europe.

Subsidystories.eu is a joined cooperation between Open Knowledge Germany and Open Knowledge International, funded by Adessium and OpenBudgets.eu. 



New site SubsidyStories.eu shows where nearly 300bn of EU subsidies go across Europe

- March 9, 2017 in Money flows, News, Open Spending, OpenSpending

Open Knowledge Germany and Open Knowledge International launched SubsidyStories.eu: a database containing all recipients of EU Structural Funds, accounting for 292,9 Billion Euros of EU Subsidies.

The European Union allocates 44 % of its total 7-year budget through the European Structural Funds. Who received these funds – accounting for 347 Billion Euro from 2007 – 2013 and 477 Billion Euro from 2014 – 2020 – could only be traced through regional and local websites. Subsidystories.eu changes this by integrating all regional datasets into one database with all recipients of the European Structural and Investment Funds from 2007 onwards.

“SubsidyStories is a major leap forward in bringing transparency to the spending of EU funds,” said Dr Ronny Patz, a researcher focused on budgeting in the European Union and in the United Nations system at the Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität (LMU) in Munich. “For years, advocates have asked the EU Commission and EU member state governments to create a single website for all EU Structural and Investment Funds, but where they have failed, civil society now steps in.”

Subsidystories.eu makes the recipients of the largest EU subsidies program visible across Europe. Recent and future debates on EU spending will benefit from the factual basis offered by the project, as spending on the member state, regional and local level can be traced. Subsidystories.eu makes it possible to check which projects and organisations are receiving money and how it is spent across Europe. For example, the amounts given per project are vastly different per country; in Poland, the average sum per project is 381 664  € whereas in Italy this is only 63 539 €.

The data can be compared throughout the EU enabling a thorough analysis of EU spending patterns. Subsidystories.eu gives scientists, journalists and interested citizens the direct possibility of visualising data and running data analytics using SQL. The data can be directly downloaded to CSV for the entire European Union or for specific countries.

Beneficiary data, which was previously scattered across the EU in different languages and formats, had to be opened, scraped, cleaned and standardised to allow for cross-country comparisons and detailed searches. That we are now able to run detailed searches, aggregate projects per beneficiary and across countries, is a big step for financial transparency in Europe.

Subsidystories.eu is a joined cooperation between Open Knowledge Germany and Open Knowledge International, funded by Adessium and OpenBudgets.eu. 



Open Data by default: Lorca City Council is using OpenSpending to increase transparency and promote urban mobility.

- February 7, 2017 in Fiscal transparency, Open Fiscal Data, Open Spending, OpenSpending, smart city, Smart Region

Castillo de Lorca. Torre Alfonsina (Public Domain)

Lorca, a city located in the South of Spain with currently 92,000 inhabitants, launched its open data initiative on January 9th 2014. Initially it offered 23 datasets containing transport, mobility, statistical and economic information. From the very beginning, OpenSpending was the tool selected by Lorca City Council because of its capabilities and incredible visualization abilities. The first upload of datasets was done in 2013, on the previous version of OpenSpending. With the OpenSpending relaunch last year, Lorca City Council continued to make use of the OpenSpending datastore, while the TreeMap view of the expenditure budget was embedded on the council’s open data website. In December 2016, the council’s open data website was redesigned, including budget datasets built with the new version at next.openspending.org. The accounting management software of Lorca allows the automatic conversion of data files to csv. format, so these datasets are compatible with the requested formats established by OpenSpending. Towards more transparency and becoming a smart city In 2015, when the City of Lorca transparency website was launched, the council decided to continue with the same strategy focused on visualization tools to engage citizens with an intuitive approach to the budget data. Lorca is a city pioneer in the Region of Murcia in terms of open data and transparency. So far, 125 datasets have been released and much information is available along with the raw data. It deserves to be highlighted that there are pilot project initiatives to bring open data to schools, which was carried out during the past year. In 2017, we will resume to teach the culture of open data to school children with the main goal to demonstrate how to work with data by using open data. In the close future the council plans to open more data directly from the sources, i.e. achieve policy of open data by default. And of course Lorca intends to continue exploring other possibilities that Open Spending offers us to provide all this data to the citizenry. In addition, Lorca is working to become a smart city (article in Spanish only) – open data is a key element in this goal. Therefore, Lorca’s open data initiative will be a part of the Smart Social City strategy from the very beginning. 

Brazil’s Public Spending project searches for leaders in various regions of Brazil

- January 30, 2017 in Open Knowledge

On 11/01, OK Brazil launched its new Public Spending website with a campaign to search, recruit and support new leaders that wish to work with transparency, mainly public spending, in Brazilian municipalities.
The website is using OKI’s OpenSpending technical architecture. 
The support will be realized with capacitation held by mentors specialized in law, transparency, technology and open data. The goal here is to increase the transparency in budget execution, bidding process and contractual management of cities. In order that leaders can achieve concrete results, the OK Brazil team will develop a chronogram with each and everyone of them, using the existing legal framework, the support of mentors and digital tools to increase transparency and the participation in the budgeting process. “The new website is demonstrates how to organize the missions and actions of the new leaders, empower the civilian society so that they may be able to monitor public spending and give access to both academics and journalists to budgeting data of cities”, says Lucas Ansei, developer and one of the mentors of the new website. According to Thiago Rondon, coordinator of the OK Brazil team, the mentors will have a fundamental role to the formation of the leaders. “They’re specialists with experience on the matter at hand and will support the leaders with online conferences that will offer directions so that the impact of the actions of these new leaders is meaningful.”. Another goal of this new phase of the project is to reach out to city mayors all over the country with the intention to get them to both sign the Public Spending Brazil Commitment Letter and realize the concrete actions foreseen in the letter. Be a leader of the Open Spending project in 2017 According to Thiago, there will be an initial agenda of action that functions like a step-by-step manual so that anyone can help to increase the transparency in the city where they reside. “We want to empower the people so that they may do that on their own. To potentialize the divulgation, we will have local leaders in pilot cities that will have a direct support from the OK Brazil.” Those who want to participate as a local leader of the Public Spending project can do so in the website between the 11th and 30th of January. During this first phase,  the OK Brazil team will select 15 local leaders through answers offered via inscription form.

Brazil’s Public Spending project is looking for leaders in various regions of Brazil to increase participation in the budgeting process.

- January 30, 2017 in network, OK Brazil, Open Spending

OK Brazil's public spending website

On the 11th of January, OK Brazil launched its new Public Spending website.

The website is part of a wider campaign to search, recruit and support new leaders that wish to work with transparency, mainly public spending, in Brazilian municipalities and is using OKI’s OpenSpending technical architecture. The support will be provided to mentors specializing in law, transparency, technology and open data. The goal here is to increase the transparency in budget execution, bidding process and contractual management of cities. In order that leaders can achieve concrete results, the OK Brazil team will develop a chronogram with each and everyone of them, using the existing legal framework, the support of mentors and digital tools to increase transparency and the participation in the budgeting process.

“The new website demonstrates how to organize the missions and actions of the new leaders, empower the civilian society so that they may be able to monitor public spending and give access to both academics and journalists to budgeting data of cities”, says Lucas Ansei, developer and one of the mentors of the new website.

According to Thiago Rondon, coordinator of the OK Brazil team, the mentors will have a fundamental role to the formation of the leaders. “They’re specialists with experience on the matter at hand and will support the leaders with online conferences that will offer directions so that the impact of the actions of these new leaders is meaningful.” Another goal of this new phase of the project is to reach out to city mayors all over the country with the intention to get them to both sign the Public Spending Brazil Commitment Letter and realize the concrete actions foreseen in the letter.

Be a leader of the Open Spending project in 2017

According to Thiago, there will be an initial agenda of action that functions like a step-by-step manual so that anyone can help to increase the transparency in the city where they reside. “We want to empower the people so that they may do that on their own. To potentialize the divulgation, we will have local leaders in pilot cities that will have a direct support from the OK Brazil.” Those who want to participate as a local leader of the Public Spending project can do so on the website. During this first phase,  the OK Brazil team will select 15 local leaders through answers offered via inscription form.