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Budgets for Justice: Making Law and Justice budgets Accessible and Actionable

Our newest platform, Budgets for Justice (or B4J), goes live today. We have developed this open data platform in collaboration with our partners at Agami and Civis. With this, we are taking another crucial step towards making the public finance data of this country more accessible and actionable. This is our behind-the-scenes blog where we will share more about the platform, the idea to integrate our work across sectors (public finance and law and justice) and our plan to build more thematic hubs within the Justice Hub.

Birth of an idea: The Budgets for Justice initiative

Budgets for Justice — A platform to explore union budget data of India for law and justice related schemes.
Budgets for Justice — A platform to explore union budget data of India for law and justice related schemes.

A statement on which we can all agree is that “Budget data is difficult to access and work with.” There are a couple of challenges that we cite here:

  1. Difficult to Access — Every year, during the budget session of the Parliament, the union budget documents are released on the India Budget website. This has made it somewhat easy for citizens to access these documents, however, we still face accessibility issues with the format of some files, and with accessing the budget datasets for previous years. To solve this challenge, we have been working with the Centre for Budgets and Governance Accountability (CBGA) to co-create the Open Budgets India platform where citizens can easily access budget data for past years in machine-readable formats.
  2. Difficult to work with — To understand budget datasets, one needs to understand the technical terms present within these datasets. Another important bit is to figure out how these different documents are structured. Often the structure of these documents are changed without prior notice and without official documentation, the process of working with these datasets further gets complicated. Still, we see a huge interest from the civil-societies and citizens who want to use these datasets for research, advocacy through budget recommendations, etc.

Our partners who conduct empirical research in the areas such as Legal Aid or Judicial Infrastructure have often echoed the same issues while working with Budget data. These conversations lead us to think about the possibility of integrating some key datasets from the Open Budgets India platform on the Justice Hub, that might help us deal with some of these challenges.

Can Justice Hub offer some workaround to these challenges?

Justice Hub, launched in Feb 2021, is a repository (or a collection) of datasets and reports, around law and justice, contributed by its members. The image below shows the popular categories under which some datasets have been uploaded.

Justice Hub — An open data portal to access datasets and reports around law and justice. The image shows popular categories under which the datasets have been uploaded by members of the Justice Hub.
Justice Hub — An open data portal for law and justice related datasets.

We have mentioned accessibility as one of the challenges — Justice Hub can definitely solve this because we already have a platform that allows anyone to upload a dataset. Somehow, if we can get all budget datasets on this platform, then users won’t need to search for these datasets on different websites.

The other challenge we have mentioned is making budget datasets easy to work with — To further frame this challenge, we’ll have to dive deeper to understand a few components that make any dataset actionable for citizens:

  1. Better Documentation of the datasets — This might include documentation on how the datasets are structured, how the datasets are curated, if there is any change in datasets or data structure (this is an important requirement for datasets that are periodically updated), what do the variables mean, etc.
  2. Data Exploration — The ability to explore datasets across several years using open and accessible tools
  3. Data Visualization (or being able to tell stories) — The ability to visualize trends in the dataset
  4. Access to subject-matter experts — For discussing doubts and queries regarding data curation, data processing, etc.
  5. Access to data experts — Who can help with analysing the data, testing hypotheses, discovering insights from the data, etc.

This is not an exhaustive list of components. It is difficult to make any dataset actionable (for any use-case). To achieve the desired results, we need people from different backgrounds to collaborate.

Platforms like the Justice Hub and Open Budgets India can solve for (1) Better documentation and (2) Data exploration but for other components, we might need to build a custom platform that is tailored around a use-case or a dataset. In the past, we have built platforms like the Zombie Tracker with a sole objective, to find out the cases registered under Section 66A of the IT Act, which has been declared unconstitutional, that are still pending. Examples of other platforms that follow this approach are The Eviction Lab and The Stanford Open Policing Project.

Is there a way we can bridge this gap between Justice Hub, a generic platform for law and justice datasets, and a custom platform that will help citizens understand and analyse the budget data on law and justice related schemes?

The Idea of Mini Hubs

This is not the first time we are faced with this challenge. Our partners have often mentioned the kind of support they need for publishing data, data analysis, research and advocacy on specific topics, among others. To make any progress on the idea of data accessibility we will have to deal with these current challenges and, as Justice Hub, the Budgets for Justice initiative is our first attempt in that direction. This is our first Mini Hub.

The image shows the dataset listing page of the Budgets for Justice platform. The explorers can be used to view trends in the budget allocation and expenditure patterns for all datasets listed on the platform. The dataset listing page can be accessed here
Budgets for Justice explorer — View budget allocation and expenditure trends for last 5 years for selected schemes

So what is the objective of a Mini Hub?

A Mini Hub (till we find a better name) is a platform, built on top of the Justice Hub. The Mini Hub will focus on a specific topic, in this case is Budgets, to create public resources using shared knowledge of collaborators who work towards a common goal.

A few necessary conditions for a Mini Hub to exist and sustain are:

  1. A group of partners who work on specific issues within a sector, e.g. child rights who will collectively decide the scope of the Mini Hub
  2. Shared roles and responsibilities among partners to make datasets more accessible through the Justice Hub
  3. A platform to create and share common resources. These can be datasets, knowledge, research expertise, etc.
  4. An agreement on sharing all the knowledge outputs of this initiative in an open and accessible manner

Let’s see how these points fit within the context of the Budgets for Justice Mini Hub:

  1. We’re starting this collaboration with Agami and Civis. CivicDataLab works on data curation and managing the data and tech infrastructure, Agami works on bringing together subject-matter experts who can help us curate and make sense of this data and Civis helps us build a community around this initiative.
  2. The scope of the project is to enhance the access to Union Budgets data on schemes around Law and Justice.
  3. We’re using the existing infrastructure of the Justice Hub to publish raw datasets under open licences.
  4. The Budgets for Justice platform is our gateway for sharing resources, telling stories and conducting events to make these datasets more actionable.

With the Mini Hubs, we would like to bring in our data and tech expertise, build a network of collaborators who act as subject-matter experts, and together we work on creating digital public goods for the law and justice community in India. We hope this approach helps us in creating more actionable datasets that drive change. But we’ll figure things out along the way as we build more Mini Hubs in the future.

The essential components of the Budgets for Justice platform

Here we’ll break down the platform into a few important components:

  1. Integration with the Justice Hub — The Budgets for Justice platform is developed on top of the Justice Hub. What this means is that the Justice Hub acts as a backend (or host) to all datasets that are available for research and exploration on the Budgets for Justice platform. This helps us reuse the existing server infrastructure of the Justice Hub.
  2. The focus on storytelling — Our objective is to communicate the insights shared by our partners who work on budget data so that we all can learn, adapt and write our own stories using this platform.
  3. The focus on data visualization — The team did the hard work of processing raw budget datasets that are available on OBI so that we can build bar charts, line charts, etc. that can help us understand the patterns within the budget data for specific schemes.
  4. Better documentation — We have documented our processes to curate these datasets in the data guidebook. All datasets also include a data dictionary that specifies what each variable represents. The entire dataset can be downloaded as a data package (a collection of files) so that users can easily use these files outside the platform.
  5. Open Source — The entire source code of the Budgets for Justice platform is available on GitHub under GNU Affero General Public License version 3.0
  6. Working with the community — In the coming weeks, we plan to organise several community events with subject-matter experts who have used budget datasets towards research and advocacy. Our objective is to continue working with these experts to curate more datasets and create more common resources for our community.

The work ahead of us

With this, we begin our journey on linking open datasets from two diverse sectors. The journey ahead is not easy. As we are all aware, the importance of budget documents increases as we move down the hierarchy from union to states to districts and beyond but, unfortunately, the access to budget documents decreases in the same order. Going ahead, we are planning to start our work with states like Assam, Sikkim, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, etc. for which the budget documents are available for a few years in machine-readable formats.

At the state level, through our state partners, we might be better equipped to deal with state specific issues that might be quite different across states. What we are sure about is the base that we have created with the Budgets for Justice platform and with this we hope to onboard more partners, work on more data challenges, and also help our partners and fellow citizens use budget data as a tool to enhance civic engagement in the country.

The platform is live at https://budgets.justicehub.in/.

Reach Out

Our team is constantly thinking about better ways to make open datasets more accessible and actionable. If you are interested in knowing more about the platform or if you have any feedback for us or if you would like to discuss anything and everything about open datasets, do write to us at info[at]civicdatalab[dot]in. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

Stay tuned for more updates on Budgets for Justice.

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