Q&A: How BudgiT is creating government transparency in Nigeria using open data

Oluseun Onigbinde is an Ashoka Fellow and co-founder of  BudgiT, a Nigerian startup using creative technology to represent budgets and public data. Lauren Pfeifer of ONE’s policy team sat down with Oluseun to talk about his website, open data and how he’s working to increase the transparency of the Nigerian government.

You’re the co-founder of BudgiT. What is it?

BudgiT is an organization that helps Nigerian citizens understand the Nigerian budget. For years, Nigerian budgets have been published as huge PDFs, difficult to mine and understand. BudgiT takes those static documents and translates them into formats that are more interesting and engaging to the people. We tweet, present data interactively and create infographics to illustrate the budget, where it came from, where it is spent and what it achieves.

I saw the 2013 budget illustrator on your website. What is your favorite thing about that tool?

It’s a very exciting tool. It shows how much is being spent on key sectors and services, and how much is being spent on administration and services. If you keep digging, you can download the budgetary data in an open format.

“Open data” is one of your favorite topics. Why?

Open data can improve accountability, lead to better decisions and help societies to function more effectively. The core task lies in harnessing open data for public usage and most especially how it drives … institutional reform, inclusive growth and improved service delivery. This is why BudgiT exists – to enable citizens to hold the government accountable for how it uses their national resources. We provide simplified views, but we also give them the data so they can see for themselves.

Example of budgIT graphic

An example of how budgIT uses open data to visualize the Nigerian government’s budget and spending

What has to happen to ensure that “open data” isn’t just another empty buzzword?

A lot of work is needed at the both the supply side and demand side of open data to translate information into improvement. 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 stage where citizens and civil society can clearly ask questions. For abstract items such as infrastructure allocation or education spending, data must go deep down to the smallest possible unit, where objective questions can be put forward about results. For example, with data about specific projects in my community –- the construction of a bridge or a school for example — I can compare the result I see to that expenditure.

Citizens need clearer definitions of the terms used in data published in open formats. This is important for understanding, as well as building visualizations and infographics. Open data needs to be citizen-centered, providing information on things that matters to them. When citizens are aware of the projects and allocations in their neighborhood, they are most likely to harness the power of open data and properly ask questions or start a debate. To this end, open data must tell a story, converting stacks of numbers into a narrative that drives a sense of ownership. Nigeria’s oil revenues are in the billions of US dollars. Publishing data in open formats must stretch further to describe the purchasing power of such huge amounts, so citizens can better understand how it affects them.

What’s the next step for open data in Nigeria?

Access to data is not enough. We need a feedback system that allows citizens to reach elected officials, public servants and other stakeholders. Debate, discussions and comments with the institution responsible for those projects is essential. In this way, will we expand the power of the open data — when citizens see someone in government connect with their concerns.

What’s next for BudgiT?

We are going to revamp BudgiT’s desktop and mobile web platforms, and our citizen engagement model. We will take into consideration the constraints and potential of open data as we improve BudgiT, but we also feel that its an approach that could be part of open data initiatives springing up across the globe.

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