Picturing a budget, one color at a time

Aug 2, 2013
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An independent think tank in Moldova is trying to start debate about public money, and they are hoping to spark it with some very pretty pictures.

Without specialization, looking at raw data figures can be overwhelming, but a project launched in February 2013 by the independent Moldovan economic think tank Expert Grup has tried to offer a more accessible — and visually appealing — way to look at data.

The project, Budget Stories, is an online initiative that grew out of the recent open data movement taking place in Moldova as part of the country’s transition to an e-government system. Since then, the amount of open data coming from the Moldovan government has risen dramatically.

But an abundance of data does not necessarily mean that users will automatically come running. The Budget Stories team, with the support of Soros Moldova Foundation, wanted to turn all those raw numbers and spreadsheets into something that most people would understand and maybe even want to look at.

The site has published four infographics so far in partnership with RT Design Studios, with plans for a fifth in the works. Besides the most recent visualization on education spending, which was published 31 July, the site also features infographics on foreign grants and federal assistance, agriculture, and parliamentary spending.

The website also has a section for users to suggest what new data should be included on the site.

Victoria Vlad, an economist at Expert Grup and communications coordinator and an analyst for the Budget Stories project, explained that the idea behind the site came from a workshop with the World Bank Institute team. She describes how she and a colleague were brainstorming ideas for data accessibility when they came up with an idea to make numbers more meaningful.

“Data spending is not interesting by itself; it’s only meaningful when you combine it with the right type of non-financial indicators, such as number of students or schools,” said Vlad.

This combination is exactly what Budget Stories has set out to accomplish through their colorful infographics. But for those who want the raw data, users can find all the data sets used in each story on the site.

And everything on Budget Stories is registered under a Creative Commons license, which means that anyone is free to use and distribute the infographics. The license allows Budget Stories to create partnerships with the media.

Vlad explains that the media that they collaborate with receives a package of data a few hours before publishing which contains a press kit with information that they can adjust and publish as soon as Budget Stories publishes it. Their media partners also help them advertise and promote the project.

Another feature of the site is the interactive budget calendar, which resembles an infographic but allows users to click and navigate to see the actual budget reports. The calendar shows when documents are due to be published, something Vlad hopes will keep the government more accountable to complying with their open-data obligations.

“It is a challenging task, but so far we are catching up and we are trying to discipline even the Minister of Finance with this calendar by showing that some documents are published at not the right time,” she said.

Besides showing readers what the data mean and keeping government officials accountable (neither an easy task), Vlad said that they hope Budget Stories will serve as platform for discussion about the budget and where the money actually goes.

As for the future of the open data initiative in Moldova, Vlad is overall optimistic about where it could go, although she admits that some ministries are faring better than others when it comes to adhering to idea of open data. Some ministries, she said, still release their data in hard-to-use- PDF files.

About the Author

Molly Jane Zuckerman

Molly Zuckerman is an editorial intern at Transitions Online. She attends Wesleyan University and plans to jointly major in Russian Studies and Comparative Politics.
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