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BudgetApps: The First All-Russia Contest on Open Finance Data

- January 16, 2015 in Budget Data, historical data, OKF Russia, Open Data

This is a guest post by Ivan Begtin, Ambassador for Open Knowledge in Russia and co-founder of the Russian Local Group. budgetapps2 Dear friends, the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 have been marked by an event, which is terrific for all those who are interested in working with open data, participating in challenges for apps developers and generally for all people who are into the Open Data Movement. I’m also sure, by the way, that people who are fond of history will find it particularly fascinating to be involved in this event. On 23 December 2014, the Russian Ministry of Finance together with NGO Infoculture launched an apps developers’ challenge BudgetApps based on the open data, which have been published by the Ministry of Finance over the past several years. There is a number of various datasets, including budget data, audit organisations registries, public debt, national reserve and many other kinds of data. Now, it happened so that I have joined the jury. So I won’t be able to participate, but let me provide some details regarding this initiative. All the published data can be found at the Ministry website. Lots of budget datasets are also available at The Single Web Portal of the Russian Federation Budget System. That includes the budget structure in CSV format, the data itself, reference books and many other instructive details. Data regarding all official institutions are placed here. This resource is particularly interesting, because it contains indicators, budgets, statutes and numerous other characteristics regarding each state organisation or municipal institution in Russia. Such data would be invaluable for anyone who considers creating a regional data-based project. One of the challenge requirements is that the submitted projects should be based on the data published by the Ministry of Finance. However, it does not mean that participants cannot use data from other sources alongside with the Ministry data. It is actually expected that the apps developers will combine several data sources in their projects. To my mind, one should not even restrict themselves to machine-readable data, because there are also available human-readable data that can be converted to open data formats by participants. Many potential participants know how to write parsers on their own. For those who have never had such an experience there are great reference resources, e.g. ScraperWiki that can be helpful for scraping web pages. There are also various libraries for analysing Excel files or extracting spreadsheets from PDF documents (for instance, PDFtables, Abbyy Finereader software or other Abbyy services ). Moreover, at other web resources of the Ministry of Finance there is a lot of interesting information that can be converted to data, including news items that recently have become especially relevant for the Russian audience.

Historical budgets

There is a huge and powerful direction in the general process of opening data, which has long been missing in Russia. What I mean here is publishing open historical data that are kept in archives as large paper volumes of reference books containing myriads of tables with data. These are virtually necessary when we turn to history referring to facts and creating projects devoted to a certain event. The time has come at last. Any day now the first scanned budgets of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union will be openly published. A bit later, but also in the near future, the rest of the existing budgets of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic will be published as well. These scanned copies are being gradually converted to machine-readable formats, such as Excel and CSV data reconstructed from these reference books – both as raw data and as initially processed and ordered data. We created these ordered normalised versions to make it easier for developers to use them in further visualisations and projects. A number of such datasets have already been openly published. It is also worth mentioning that a considerable number of scanned copies of budget reference books (from both the Russian Empire and USSR) have already been published online by Historical Materials, a Russian-language grass-root project launched by a group of statisticians, historians and other enthusiasts. Here are the historical machine-readable datasets published so far: I find this part of the challenge particularly inspiring. If I were not part of the jury, I would create my own project based on historical budgets data. Actually, I may well do something like that after the challenge is over (unless somebody does it earlier).

More data?

There is a greater stock of data sources that might be used alongside with the Ministry data. Here are some of them: These are just a few examples of numerous available data sources. I know that many people also use data from Wikipedia and DBPedia.

What can be done?

First and foremost, there are great opportunities for creating projects aimed at enhancing the understandability of public finance. Among all, these could be visual demos of how the budget (or public debt, or some particular area of finance) is structured. Second, lots of projects could be launched based on the data on official institutions at bus.gov.ru. For instance, it could be a comparative registry of all hospitals in Russia. Or a project comparing all state universities. Or a map of available public services. Or a visualisation of budgets of Moscow State University (or any other Russian state university for that matter). As to the historical data, for starters it could be a simple visualisation comparing the current situation to the past. This might be a challenging and fascinating problem to solve.

Why is this important?

BudgetApps is a great way of promoting open data among apps developers, as well as data journalists. There are good reasons for participating. First off, there are many sources of data that provide a good opportunity for talented and creative developers to implement their ambitious ideas. Second, the winners will receive considerable cash prizes. And last, but not least, the most interesting and perspective projects will get a reference at the Ministry of Finance website, which is a good promotion for any worthy project. Considerable amounts of data have become available. It’s time now for a wider audience to become aware of what they are good for.

Breaking the Knowledge Barrier: The #OpenData Party in Northern Nigeria

- October 1, 2014 in #OpenData Party, Budget Data, Budget Tracking, community, Data Expeditions, Data for CSOs, Events, Follow the Money, Geocoding, Mapping, Nigeria, spreadsheets, Storytelling, visualisation, Zamfara

If the only news you have been watching or listening to about Northern Nigeria is of the Boko Haram violence in that region of Nigeria, then you need to know that other news exist, like the non-government organizations and media, that are interested in using the state and federal government budget data in monitoring service delivery, and making sure funds promised by government reach the community it was meant for. This time around, the #OpenData party moved from the Nigeria Capital – Abuja to Gusau, Zamfara and was held at the Zamfara Zakat and Endowment Board Hall between Thursday, 25 and Friday, 26, 2014. With 40 participant all set for this budget data expedition, participants included the state Budget Monitoring Group (A coalition of NGOs in Zamfara) coordinated by the DFID (Development for International Development) State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI),other international NGOs such as Society for Family Health (SFH), Save the Children, amongst others.
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Group picture of participants at the #OpenData Party in Zamfara

But how do you teach data and its use in a less-technology savvy region? We had to de-mystify teaching data to this community, by engaging in traditional visualization and scraping – which means the use of paper artworks in visualizing the data we already made available on the Education Budget Tracker. “I never believed we could visualize the education budget data of the federal government as easy as what was on the wall” exclaimed Ahmed Ibrahim of SAVI
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Visualization of the Education Budget for Federal Schools in Zamfara

As budgets have become a holy grail especially with state government in Nigeria, of most importance to the participants on the first day, was how to find budget data, and processes involved in tracking if services were really delivered, as promised in the budget. Finding the budget data of the state has been a little bit hectic, but with much advocacy, the government has been able to release dataset on the education and health sector. So what have been the challenges of the NGOs in tracking or using this data, as they have been engaged in budget tracking for a while now?
Challenges of Budget Tracking Highlighted by participants

Challenges of Budget Tracking Highlighted by participants

“Well, it is important to note that getting the government to release the data took us some time and rigorous advocacy, added to the fact that we ourselves needed training on analysis, and telling stories out of the budget data” explained Joels Terks Abaver of the Christian Association of Non Indigenes. During one of the break out session, access to budget information and training on how to use this budget data became a prominent challenge in the resolution of the several groups. The second day took participants through the data pipelines, while running an expedition on the available education and health sector budget data that was presented on the first day. Alas! We found out a big challenge on this budget data – it was not location specific! How does one track a budget data that does not answer the question of where? When involved in budget tracking, it is important to have a description data that states where exactly the funds will go. An example is Construction of Borehole water pump in Kaura Namoda LGA Primary School, or we include the budget of Kaura Namoda LGA Primary School as a subtitle in the budget document.
Taking participants through the data pipelines and how it relates to the Monitoring and Evaluation System

Taking participants through the data pipelines and how it relates to the Monitoring and Evaluation System

In communities like this, it is important to note that soft skills are needed to be taught – , like having 80% of the participants not knowing why excel spreadsheets are been used for budget data; like 70% of participants not knowing there is a Google spreadsheet that works like Microsoft Excel; like all participants not even knowing where to get the Nigeria Budget data and not knowing what Open Data means. Well moving through the school of data through the Open Data Party in this part of the world, as changed that notion.”It was an interesting and educative 2-day event taking us through the budget cycle and how budget data relates to tracking” Babangida Ummar, the Chairman of the Budget Working Group said. Going forward, this group of NGO and journalist has decided to join trusted sources that will be monitoring service delivery of four education institutions in the state, using the Education Budget Tracker. It was an exciting 2-day as we now hope to have a monthly engagement with this working group, as a renewed effort in ensuring service delivery in the education sector. Wondering where the next data party will happen? We are going to the South – South of Nigeria in the month of October – Calabar to be precise, and on the last day of the month, we will be rocking Abuja! flattr this!