Not many Nigerians are interested in the National Budget or other government financial document, many say its too technical, many say its too much to read, others ask where they can find it with the thought that the government hide the documents away from public consumption. With me in this chat is Seun Onigbinde, the founder of BudgIT a creative start-up driven to retell the Nigerian budget and public data in a finer detail across every literacy span with aim to stimulate citizens interests around public data and hence trigger discussions towards better governance.
I heard you launched something called Tracka, could you enlighten me on it?
(Laughs), We haven’t launched Tracka but it’s coming up very soon, it’s a platform that makes it easy for people to collaborate and track capital projects of governance based issues in their locality, for example if the road to your house is not tarred and you need to get attention to it, you can easily put it on Tracka, get the mobile number of the person responsible and basically you can get him to get daily alerts and notifications. Tracka is more like a mobile and web solution to alert people in government offices of their priorities and also give people the power to have a say in what the government decides to do, what they actually consider priority both on their side and that of the people, so if the people are expecting the roads to be fixed at a time and the government is focusing on water or some other thing, the people can use this means to call their attention.
Apparently, it’s not only the people that will use this app right?
Yes both the government officials and the people will use it because the idea is that once you put up a complaint on the site, it has been designed to have the email address or the phone number of the person in charge let’s say the commissioner of works, it automatically alerts him via email and sms of the complaint or suggestion that has been submitted on the site.
Budgit gives the people great power and knowledge, for the record and those who know not what they are to do with it, could you state what is expected?
We understand that there are peculiarities when it comes to literacy class in our society, not everyone is on the same knowledge level about these things, so what we intend to do because we understand that information is power and that access to information is very key for a functional society is ensuring that every level is able to connect with this information and is empowered to ask the right questions, make desirable suggestions and advice on how best the government can become more effective. This is what we continually do, it is an undone job because we keep learning and keep finding creative ways to send the message to bite the people hard so they get the understanding of what this really is all about.
You quit the bank for Budgit, why, and how were you able to scale from the point where you were told your idea wasn’t viable?
I worked in the bank for 4 years, but at a time I became a bit tired of the entire system and wanted to do something else with my life, I ruminated on it many times and decided to give it a go. If you look at it, we won the hackaton with Budgit in March 2011, we had 6 months to build the product, we launched September 13, 2011. I was still in the bank till September 2012, I still had one year, so then it was Budgit, bank, Budgit, Bank, trying to see if I could get it right, soliciting for support and scale. I just knew I wanted to do something different, something more interesting that gives me much more joy. I am enjoying it because it’s much more fun although a bit stressful.
Since you worked in the bank, I believe you must have saved up enough to start Budgit, right?
Well , let’s say what we started with was $5,000 which we won from the hackaton with which we used to pay developers, data analyst, and because I have worked in the bank and had experience in handling money, we were able to manage. Then much later we raised $5,000 from Tony Elumelu foundation and got some private support of another $5,000. Despite the fact that we have been awash with a lot of funds, we have obligations and projects, thus we put the funds into them.
I heard you train journalists; please tell me more.
We believe that we work with a complex society where we have CSOs, journalists, government, and citizens. So we support government with things like training the national assembly, we also train and support the civil society on things like data analysis and transition. We have this class called Hack Hackers which is a data journalism class where we teach how to use simple visualization tools to create stories. The idea is that the stories which involves number and data, instead of just throwing the numbers in text, we teach them how to better put the numbers in perspective, for example if you are reporting on an epidemic in a particular community, it will make more sense if you say, ‘100 people have died within this community and how many people actually live in the community.’ This helps the reader know how far the epidemic has spread. With a little graphics added to the numbers, it makes the story more readable, enjoyable and helps put that story in perspective. Putting story summaries in visualizations and grapics attracts people to actually read it.
How much impact do you think Budgit has made in Nigeria?
The National budget was a document that nobody understood, now we have simplified and made it as interesting as it can be. We are focusing the first two years on social-urban youths and grass roots, the social urban youths are the people on Twitter, Facebook, and then the grass roots are people down the cadre. We have tried to make sure that people understand how public finance works. It’s an on-going work, a work that is not finished yet.
What is the opinion of the people in government about the new power you are giving to the people in form of data?
Some people in the government already have their minds reformed and believe this is a new frontier for global transparency and accountability democracy. One of the wrong assumptions we easily have is that democracy stops at the elections, but you must understand that vigilance is the enternal price of freedom, you cannot say because you have voted, you can go back and rest, no! You must constantly check and constantly appraise and review those who you have conferred powers to see that they are appropriating the powers right. After the Nigerian constitution, the budget is the most important document in the country, no matter all the campaign promises you have made, the budget us where you show us clearly how you much you have fared. That is why we will raise a campaign very soon on how to know the value of a vote.
For example if Seun Onigbinde becomes the governor of Lagos State, do you know what kind of resources you have exposed him to, do you know that you have committed the lands, properties, allocations and many more to him to manage? When you understand the amount of power you have given to him, then maybe you will think twice when you are collecting a thousand naira during his campaign. If you have it in mind that this man can borrow as much as he can, waste as much as he can, then you will also understand that he can put you and your generations to come in debt.
Finally, how do you get data for Budgit?
The government has come to understand that giving information to the people is actually the right way to go especially at the federal level; the budget is accessible but not exactly in an open format where one can easily reuse or modify. Presently it comes in a pdf format and we spend a lot of time and resources trying to convert from pdf to excel to allow us do all sorts of analysis and all that but there are areas we expect the government to do more, areas like audited accounts, release of funds to ministries, departments and agencies. Right now the sharing of allocations to the states by the Federal Government is there for everyone to see on newspapers and websites, the data is available at the federal level, but we have challenges with the State Government.
Presently we celebrate states like Edo state as the ‘open data’ state, because every data we have and need are on their website, we also mention Ektiti state, although it takes a lot of pushing before they publish their budgets. Other than these two states, no other state publishes their budget or other government data on their platform, but we hope in time this will change.
The good thing is that we have the minister of ICT now who is championing ‘open data’, she understands that information should be made available to the people because this helps to attract and stimulate foreign investment.