From data to information… to insight?

4IP announced a new investment last week:

Everybody has economic transactions with the government, whether outgoing in the form of tax, or incoming in the form of benefits, loans or grants, and in these times of fiscal austerity the project has widespread relevance by making the huge numbers we hear on the news mean something to the individual.

Where Does My Money Go? has the potential to stir things up, not only by challenging government at every level to stand by spending decisions, but also by challenging people to take pride in the financial contribution they make to society.

The Government are busily publishing hitherto secret public data and recently released the COINS database which lists detailed estimated and actual departmental spending under thousands of category headings. It’s a behemoth: 24 millions rows of information that reveal how our taxes are spent.

This is great news for those people interested and members of news and media organisations but in practice the effort required to learn where to look for information and how to interpret it is a barrier to access for the vast majority of us.

Where Does My Money Go? proposes to change this. By identifying, structuring and contextualising available data on government spending, then offering it for customisation both in a raw, standard format and through a user-friendly graphical interface. The Open Knowledge Foundation, the not-for-profit organisation behind the project, aspire to make a chess move forward in spending accountability: from transparency to accessibility.

I am not quite sure what it means to “make a chess move forward”, but the sentiment is clearly the right one. Better still, this is not the only attempt to present and make sense of the data: Rosslyn Analytics [but beware of loud sounds] has very rapidly built a front end to the COINS data, as has has the Guardian. These are all great examples of exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I was writing last week about the move from data to design, with Where Does My Money Go? having a particular strength in clear visualisation.

But at another level, they are an indication of just how far this process has still to go:

  • It’s still a thin veneer: It’s fairly straightforward to get a sense of the big comparisons (health and defence, education and our streets), but things get patchy very rapidly.  What, for example, does ‘our streets’ cover? Well half of it turns out to be ‘housing’ (not at all the same as streets in my book) and most the of the rest is ‘unknown’. It is still very hard to work out what money is actually being spent on.
  • It’s an interpretation: The question of what goes with what, and what it should then be called is necessarily a matter of judgement.  There is nothing to be ashamed of in that, it’s completely inevitable, but if the (equally inevitably) arbitrary way that data is structured and reported drives the way that it is interpreted, there is a risk that we are not as much further forward from traditional expenditure reporting as we might like to think.  So £4 bn of ‘housing‘ expenditure under ‘our streets’ appears in a completely different place from £0.6bn of spending on ‘housing‘ under ‘helping others’.  That difference says more about the responsibilities of different government departments than it does about the fundamental difference between the different ways government contributes to the cost of housing – or does it?
  • It’s about inputs: If you work hard with this data, you can get a sense of what government spent money on.  But you can’t get much of a sense of what it used the things it bought to do, still less what happened as a result.

That risks sounding like a churlish response to some excellent work, which isn’t my intention at all.  On the contrary, it is not only useful in its own right, it helps to show what more is needed – and allows me to repeat the basic point behind this and the previous posts, that all this will be less and less about data and more and more about interpretation, presentation and engagement.

Comments

  1. Another great post.

    Two quick lines of thought:

    1) What extra inputs can be created / linked up to help show the impact of funding. Funding usually has plans / reports / strategies / feedback and often media (photos, videos, newspaper reports etc.) that are related to it: how can we better relate this back to spending? On a techno-social level – can we encourage the tagging of content with unique spending specific keys (if WDMMG could work out a tag structure that allows people to add context to spending from other online spaces that could be a great thing). On a social level – how can we encourage (should we encourage?) recipients of funding to share, in the public domain, stories and insights into what that funding led to?

    2) Insights still don’t take us all the way. In most things I would hazard that what we value are responses and actions. In a tangentially related project around data I’ve just been exploring how long and complex the journey between information and action is, and how we need to think about all stages – not just the presenting people with facts / insights stage – http://blogs.plings.net/index.php/2010/06/20/the-full-journey-information-to-action/

    1. I strongly agree that in the end this matters if it takes us beyond insight. I wrote about that in a slightly different context a couple of years ago in an area where your lines of thought are very relevant and which in a sense sets the challenge for WDMMG-like services. But the same basic question underpins both that and your post, which I think you bring out very clearly: what is the real (rather than idealised) model which runs from information (or rather before information) to action.

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