The people have a right to know, but sometimes they’re a bit too busy to find out for themselves. Informed citizens have both the need and the desire to know about public affairs, whether public or of a more private nature.

For as long as there has been democracy, there’s also been a free press, with journalists carrying out the business of matching stories and information with the citizens interested in them. Now there is a firehose of information available, and some of the clearest is about how governments spend people’s taxes; this is what Spending Stories concentrates on.

A newspaper’s letters to the editor page ensures that the flow of information is never just in a single direction, toward the reader. The press is part of that series of tubes which channel information about public policy around our society — indeed it’s very hard to imagine democracy or the free press surviving long without each other.

Lowering the barriers to data management

Internet technology enables a much richer conversation between citizen, journalist and official. Citizen readers can participate in fact-checking after the publication of a story; they can suggest new avenues for follow-up articles, flag matters of suspicion, take the story to their representative, and so on. Crucially, citizens can also go out and find information themselves and write their own stories, using the same tools as journalists, but without the reputation, budget, ethical training, etc. The technology for much of this sort of participation exists already through blogging and content management systems, but there are many challenges with integrating large-scale structured numerical datasets with journalistic processes and tools.

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Over the past few months, Spending Stories has overhauled the OpenSpending platform to lower the barriers to access to data management tools. We’ve developed OpenSpending at the Open Knowledge Foundation. The project’s aim is to map money: We crowdsource information about public spending from around the world and help people search, explore and visualize it.

Spending Stories is our effort to integrate this with journalism. To this end, we’ve added features permitting datasets to be hidden until publication time, web-based management of the data, and the means for citizens themselves to produce visualizations of government spending information which break down the data in ways chosen by the citizen, not by the government or the party who first acquired the data from them.

The next evolutionary steps

Recent news articles about public spending are getting closer to providing readers and citizens with comprehensive access to the data sources behind the story. The next evolutionary steps will be direct embedding of datasets in story webpages, and data-centric story layouts.

In November, the Guardian covered a report on aid to Uganda by Publish What You Fund. The report and the coverage concern the difficulty of tracking the thousands of aid projects in Uganda, both by the Ugandan government and by donors. The article included a static screenshot of the interactive visualization and a link to it.

Let’s step back behind the story.

The interactive visualization was produced by OpenSpending. But advertisers use stories and articles when accounting for payments to online publishers. This will change, but there has to be a way to rethink the mix of data, visualization and text visible to a reader.
Mobile platforms limit the screen real estate available for the more lavish data visualizations. Designing for compactness will be the price of admission to emerging markets where mobile dominates.

The Guardian’s datablog already runs interactive visualizations as articles. A static visualization can be reproduced in the paper version of a publication, but there’s no such paper-based analogue of an interactive visualization; consequently paper and web versions will diverge.

Where spending stories comes in

Spending Stories will provide tools for embedding datasets, visualizations and details of companies and transactions within and alongside narratives produced by journalists.

Spending Stories also is planning to develop a workbench of tools to help journalists find and use budgetary data to the full potential of the system: statistical measures, matching against other databases (e.g., company identities), and so on; the Open Knowledge Foundation will use its many links with data journalists to ensure we develop what’s useful to practitioners.

It should prove feasible for Spending Stories to provide an equivalent of Wikipedia’s “What Links Here“ feature. Journalists (and their editors!) would be able to see if someone had already written about a particular dataset, company or transaction.

Ultimately, journalists will be able to harness the power to manipulate huge stores of information, and mix this closely with their narratives — and both citizens and officials will gain a tool for spotting where questionable or controversial transactions have occurred.

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