Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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June 28, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

Knight News Challenge winner Spending Stories wants to bring context to fiscal information

Let’s try an experiment. Ready? Okay, here goes:

Tax policy.

Government spending.

Economic data.

Have your eyes glazed over yet? No? (Wow, really?)

How about this:

Fiscal information. Financial statistics. Gross domestic product.

You get the idea. Here’s a paradox that would make Lippmann smirk: While government spending forms and informs the most basic infrastructure of democracies, reading about it also tends to put most members of those democracies to sleep. Even in the U.K., where government spending data is relatively robust and admirably available to the public, the most common reaction to fiscal info’s presentation tends to land somewhere on the scale between “meh” and “zzz.”

The Open Knowledge Foundation wants to change that. The U.K.-based nonprofit — which promotes, as its name suggests, knowledge that people can use, remix, and redistribute free from legal, technological, or social restrictions — has just won $250,000 from the Knight Foundation to develop Spending Stories, a project that aims “to help the public better understand government finances by connecting readers with the context behind the numbers.”

The project is part of OKF’s broader effort to create “a world in which open knowledge is ubiquitous and routine.” In 2007, the foundation began developing a project called “Where Does My Money Go?,” which aims to make the notoriously zzz-inducing fields of taxation and government finance easier both to explore and to understand. (The site, which breaks data sets down by year-over-year bar graphs, representative images, and more, is well worth checking out.)

The focus has been on the presentation of data. To add context to, and find trends within, government spending, “we have largely concerned ourselves with data, with raw information,” says Martin Keegan, the software engineer and linguist who heads up both OpenSpending, another OKF project, and Spending Stories. And up until now, the logical output of all that information, he notes — logical, that is, if your goal is to engender understanding in your audience — has been visualizations of it, which allow viewers to extract information more quickly and intuitively than they could were they presented with, say, a spreadsheet.

But comprehension is one thing; caring is another. And to connect emotionally with the financial data, Keegan points out, “most people need it to be incorporated into a narrative.”

That’s the driving idea behind Spending Stories: to integrate data into more traditional — and more traditionally engaging — narratives. And, with it, to integrate data more seamlessly into to the text and context of everyday journalism. (So, for example, a journalistic story on City Hall’s fiscal policies could be annotated with details on budget trends, and even with related stories from other news outlets.)

“What we’re really about is the whole lifecycle of information,” Keegan says. And to represent it, Spending Stories will use a combination of algorithmic analysis and verification by a hoped-for community of users who are, yes, interested in public spending.

The project is meant to be empowering — for journalists and the public alike. And that’s reflective of an even broader goal. Ultimately, Keegan says, “we’re trying to improve fiscal literacy among the public” — because “we care about citizen participation in decisions about the rules they’re expected to obey and the taxes they’re expected to pay.”

POSTED     June 28, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2011
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