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The on think tanks interview: The Budapest Institute creators of the ‘Our Money!’ visualisation

Ourmoney_Poster2

Unless you’ve been living under a tree or not reading the On Think Tanks blog (or perhaps both, I suppose they’re not mutually exclusive), you know that we’re in the last open call for visualisations to enter the On Think Tanks Data Visualisation Competition.  Entries are due in a week from today – 20 November 2013 at 11:59GMT.

But we’ve already had two rounds, and a winner from each of those rounds. We previously interviewed Robert Muggah, one of the masterminds of the Mapping Arms Data visualisation, which was the winner of the first round. But we had a completely different style of winner for the second round. The Budapest Institute submitted a poster called ‘Our Money’ that broke down the Hungarian annual budget so that it was easy for any citizen to understand. It was the subject of heated debate among the judges – especially the origins of the visualisation – so I thought I’d ask its creators, Petra Edina Reszkető, Balázs Váradi and Anna Orosz more about the posters and the project that brought them to fruition.

JK: What are the origins of this data visualisation?

PER: In Hungary, policy debates as well as the media frequently discuss government expenditures. But factual, politically unbiased and easy-to-understand information about actual numbers and proportions is in short supply. Both electioneering and run-of-the-mill political communication is, to a large extent, about how much should be spent on schools and pensions, trains and healthcare. For the average citizen these statements are hard to interpret without points of reference. Are those sums too much or too little? Compared to what? How else could we spend the billions potentially saved?

The Budapest Institute is an independent think thank focusing on public policy research in various policy areas. During our work we have often had to face up to the fact that there is no convenient public database that would represent the budget of the Hungarian state.  True, we are informed about the general budget from the current year’s budget law and, in the year after, the law on the final accounts. It is, however, quite a challenge to learn about the planned and actual costs and revenues broken down by the functions of government, not spending institutions, in a unified and transparent way. If a tax-conscious citizen wants to gather information on whether the government spends more on highway construction than on hospitals – or vice-versa – he or she can only do so upon patiently waiting for years, accessing the Central Statistical Office’s or the Eurostat’s web sites.

JK: I can see that there is a clear gap there. But where did the idea for this visualisation come from?

BV: First, an initiative by the Hungarian NGO “For a Rational Public Life” to visualize the Hungarian budget dates back to as early as the summer of 2007.  We have seen many international examples like the Death & Taxes poster or the Budget Hero in the USA as well as The Guardian’s Spending Review in the UK. They served both as inspirations and incentives for us to create something similar in Hungary, adapted for the local circumstances of course. We are convinced that in Central and Eastern Europe, where democracy is a relatively young institution, it is of particular importance to enhance civic control and provide the common citizen with easy-to-understand tools informing them on public expenditures. A comprehensible, informative and user-friendly platform where citizens can easily access and play around with the numbers of budgetary expenditures can be one of the many ways this goal can be attained.

Second, this type of pilot project was not without precedence. During the campaign period of the last national elections in 2010 we launched a civic initiative ‘What do they promise?’ (Mitigérnek). It evaluates and quantifies the campaign programmes and monetises the most important campaign promises of the running political parties. We developed a very simple visualisation method to illustrate our results.

Was the visualisation an output of a specific project, or is budget transparency more of an institutional focus for the Budapest Institute?

PER: The budget visualisation was a pioneer visualisation project for the Institute, though a very important one. It is part of our mission to support evidence-based policy-making and to try to make the national public policy discourse based more on facts rather than beliefs. We were already convinced that data visualisations could help us to disseminate our research evidence and to argue against false beliefs in a more efficient way.

In case of the budget visualisation project, the idea for visualisation and the data came hand-in-hand. We produced both an interactive visualisation in addition to the posters submitted to this competition. With this initiative we wanted to contribute to the national tax consciousness and to the strengthening of civic responsibility. Our partners were the Open Knowledge Foundation (who helped with the visualization software) and the Fiscal Responsibility Institute Budapest (converting and editing the database).

JK: OK, so it sounds like the visualisation wasn’t done completely in-house.

AO: The BI was responsible for the coordination and organisation of the whole project, data mining and analysis. Graphic design was carried out by Kolbászból Kerítést Stúdió, a youthful Budapest startup, in close cooperation with the BI. The interactive, bubble visu software was developed by our partner, the Open Knowledge Foundation and is available as open source for anyone to use.

JK: One of the things the judges discussed a lot this round was how much we should reward ‘novelty’. This is not the first bubble budget chart any of us had ever seen — in fact there was another one in the competition this round! So, what was your actual inspiration for this particular data visualisation? And most importantly, why did you decide to take a similar approach?

BV: The Our Money! project idea and its implementation are not novel and this is a fact we refer to many times on the project’s website. We think that budget visualisation is a brilliant idea that should be done by as many countries as possible. Some of the projects mentioned above are exactly those that inspired us to strike out down road with our national data.

Every country faces the same problem: the budget is difficult to understand! And if a solution is found, why not use a similar approach elsewhere. In countries where transparency is a publicly recognised problem, it is of exceptional importance to take every chance to contribute to the building of a more transparent and accountable public administration system that is an inevitable part of a well-functioning democracy.

JK: What do you think are the pros and cons of adapting a data visualisation that has already been developed in one context to a different context (whether it be geographical or topical).

AO: In our world, where information exchange has become so straightforward, it is clever to look around in the world when we are searching for the solution to a particular problem. There are a lot of inspiring, smart and simple ideas out there. It is almost sure that someone has already faced a problem similar in nature to ours and had some ideas about how to tackle it. Reinventing the wheel is not efficient. Naturally, problems – though similar in nature – can be very different depending on context. Therefore, smart and careful adaptation and implementation of earlier ideas in a new environment should be paid particular attention to.

JK: How long did this visualisation actually take to develop from start to finish?

PER: We think it might be useful to you to get information on the schedule of the whole visu project. At the very start of the project we faced several challenges relating to accessing the official data. We struggled with the National Statistical Office and the Ministry of National Development for months, so as finally to ask for support of a later partner organization, the Fiscal Responsibility Institute Budapest in July 2011.  After waiting too long for the data throughout the summer of 2011, we cleaned and restructured the database according to our needs and established the Hungarian website (amipenzunk.hu). Meanwhile we were active in contacting international partners (Open Knowledge Foundation), and we have also joined its thematic network, the Open Spending Network.

Toward the end of October 2011, the project reached its apex. We finalized the online visualization, and started to develop further, small applications to be installed on the webpage. We worked on updating the HU budget database on the international data portal (ckan.org) and the accompanying, country profile wikipage, and launched the design of the poster (static visualization of the Hungarian budget for the actual year  2011). The main change in the project content is that finally our work was based on a considerably bigger database than the one proposed in our original application. At the end of the day, it covers historical data on Hungarian budget from 1995 through 2012(!), and the visualization focuses on the spending lines both in nominal and real terms, and in historical comparison, respectively.

In November 2011 we focused our efforts on elaborating the policy narratives and the background materials to be uploaded on to the webpage (e.g. glossary of the spending lines, handout for the interpretation of the poster). We finished the first poster by the End of November and further on, we have developed a second version to demonstrate the historical trends of the spending. Simultaneously, we organized the workshops to present and test at the same time our project content. The printing and dissemination of the posters to secondary schools were the next steps by the turn of November and December 2011.

What do you consider your main objectives with these two visualisations, and how have you put them to work as a think tank?

BV: The original advocacy aim of the project was to share information and thereby to rationalize the national public debate, with attention to two special target groups: i. secondary school teachers and their pupils, and ii. economic journalists. During our pilot period we held workshops with representatives of those target groups. Based on the workshop experiences, we have clearly seen that secondary school teachers are more open to and interested in the daily use of the website (and the related content – see, posters, visualization, database) than Hungarian journalists. Our primary aim to present the budget spending of the Hungarian State simply so as to make it comprehensible to an interested layperson was also confirmed. We presented the data broken down to provide information about what exactly is our tax money spent on. With the visual presentation of the budgetary expenses and with the database that can be mined and freely downloaded from the website we still would like to facilitate the work of journalists who regularly use this kind of information and inform young people (high school students) who are just now growing up to become tax paying citizens.

We have also put together a couple of short essays that are meant to contribute to the understanding of the relationship between different expense items, trends and international comparisons. For students we drew up “homework” exercises, and we also created visual aids, posters and other teaching material to help the work of interested high school teachers. Towards the end of the pilot project period, we became convinced that both our aims and our motivations are valid and highly relevant for the Hungarian public policy context, and collaboration with schools and teachers shall be continued in the future.

JK: What was the most difficult aspect of developing or using the data visualisation. And what was the easiest?

AO: Perhaps the greatest challenge was to refrain from trying to cram too much information onto the poster or the website. We at the Budapest Institute are economists. Therefore, when we think about the budget, our heads are chalk full of numbers about nominal and proportional sums, longitudinal comparisons, time changes, international comparisons, and so on. It required a lot of heated exchanges with the designer as well as self-restraint to realize that in this genre, less is more.

Consequently, the easiest part was to create narrative stories and find the main messages underlying the budget data, since we are working with such kind of data and related questions every day.

JK: Do you plan to do more visualisations, e.g. updating the budget every year, or broadening out into other topics? Why?

PER: Updating the budget with last year’s budgetary expenditure data (2012) has been for a long time on our agenda. We are continuously looking for organisations that would provide institutional and financial support for this update.

Naturally we are constantly looking for opportunities to extend the scope of the Our Money! project. The Budapest Institute has recently applied in consortium with other Central-Eastern European institutes for a tender that would allow this partnership to prepare websites that visualise the budgets of the capital cities of the partner countries. An additional goal of this project is to create a website that allows the interested people to compare budget items among the participating countries. This project is of greater dimension than the Our Money! project but it’s also the reason why it is such an appealing opportunity for us to participate in such an undertaking – hoping of course that the partnership wins the possibility to carry out the project.

Last, but not least, we are really pleased to have the opportunity to participate at this great competitive initiative and thankful to receive any comments and reflection on our work!

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