Adventures in Civic Tech: Visualizing Iraq’s Budget

Over the past year I’ve been fascinated with data visualization tools and how they can be wielded by peacebuilders and community leaders to communicate better. The following article is a story of how a small civic tech project ended up being a learning resource and an example of how government information can be made more accessible.

At PeaceTech Lab, my colleagues and I have partnered with organizations like Sanad for Peacebuilding to conduct PeaceTech Exchanges, technology workshops that connect peacebuilders and civil society organizations to tools that help them address the root causes of violence in their communities. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, unaccountable governance is a major driver of violence, fueling population dissatisfaction with government and their willingness to support violent organizations who oppose government.

To address this problem, we’ve supported civil society organizations use vertical accountability practices to campaign for government action on issues, and to report on government activities. PeaceTech Exchanges have trained more than 500 journalists, activists, and nonprofit leaders to use low-cost, easy to use civic tech tools, from data collection apps like KoBo Toolbox and Ushahidi, to video storytelling tools like StoryMaker, to Data Visualization tools like Infogram and Tableau Public. By incorporating these services into their work, organizations who have traditionally relied on paper can be more effective in collecting information and impacting change.

Facebook engineer Murtadha Al Tameemi and technologist Brian Forde train on Bitcoin in Basra

Last year when I applied to join NDI’s Civic Tech Leadership Program — an initiative to link Middle Eastern and American activists together to learn about civic technology and design — I did it with the hope that I could meet some effective civic tech leaders who I could incorporate into the Iraqi PeaceTech Exchange program, our longest running series stretching back to 2013. Through the program, I met Wasseem Ahmed from the Iraqi Governance Center for Public Policies. We decided to collaborate on an initiative to improve access to information about Iraq’s budget.

Iraq has issues with transparent and accountable governance, to put it mildly. Routinely near the bottom of many governance indexes, the government struggles with corruption and a perception by the populace that it is indifferent to their needs. Citizens regularly struggle to get information from the government or to have their feedback heard. Waseem and I chose a project to tackle a very small component of this problem by using data visualization tools to improve citizen access to the government’s budget.

Iraq scored a “3” out of 100 in the 2015 Open Budget Index

At the time that we started, Iraq’s “open budget” took the form of a low resolution PDF scan of a paper document buried on the government’s website. In this form it was technically “accessible” to anyone, but almost impossible to access or gain real insight from the data. We decided to visualize this budget in the treemap style of the Obama Administrations 2016 budget and to make it simpler and easier for Iraqis to understand where Iraqi leaders had chosen to spend their money.

Waseem translated the document and grouped each line item listed by the government into categories such as Trade and Finance, Energy, Education, Provinces, etc. I then took this information and organized it into a format that could be understood by Tableau Public, a free, powerful tool that enables the sharing of interactive graphics online. The result was an explorable treemap that shows the investments made by the Iraqi government in 2016.

Creating two versions of the document — one in Arabic, one in English — we shared the document online and distributed it through our various communities. Today the document is published on the Governance Center for Public Policies’ website, where at time of this writing it has been viewed about 300 times. Perhaps more importantly, it has become a learning resource for others. Last week at the PeaceTech Exchange in Baghdad, Waseem presented the graphic as an example of what can be done with a free tool and some investigative research.

See the live visualization here.

I was pleased to discover that since the time of our initial publishing of the graphic in October 2016, the Iraqi government has created its own open government page using PowerBI. Frankly speaking, I like our grouping of related categories better, so that the viewer is able to see how much focus concepts like “education” are receiving, or to compare the size of the Ministry of Oil when compared with the Ministry of Electricity. But the fact that the government is now starting to follow these practices is evidence that these tools are becoming a standard part of the open government toolbox, and civil society needs to have skilled users of these tools.

Waseem Ahmed presents an interactive visualization of Iraq’s 2016 Budget at PTX Baghdad

Of course, our dataset is incomplete. Budgetary information at the ministry or body level is one thing — it would be more telling to get more granular and see the programs or impacts that are being invested in. In order to obtain that information, a greater level of data must be obtained from the government — which is to say that much work still needs to be done in order for Iraq to achieve its goal as an accountable democracy. And, in terms of an audience reached, 300 views for a graphic is not nearly the scale at which we would hope to achieve real impact.

But for me, the takeaway is that two people with a little investigative research and a free tool were able to develop a (superior) visualization of Iraqi government data, before the government itself was able to do so. The power to generate meaningful understanding of government is within the grasp of everyone — even Iraqis, for whom these sorts of projects are not often deployed. Big things are possible with of civic tech, and the more people who are picking up tools and using them, the better.