I asked a leader of one civic tech group the other day what his team lacked. Among the group’s half-dozen or so core contributors and about 20 occasional ones, they have a coder. They also have a guy who’s tied into local politics. And the guy I talked to, Nick Brooks, is the user-interface designer.
The group is Open Budget: Oakland, one of nearly a dozen active projects in OpenOakland, a local “brigade” associated with Code for America. Open Budget Oakland aims to provide everyday citizens with an understanding, mostly with data visualization, of the city budget and budget-making.
Brooks said, “People need to know how to use this.”
That meant one thing: I said, “You need a storyteller.” That is, someone who puts the data into relatable human terms. In other words, good journalism.
Users with any financial training would see at a glance the site’s value. The main page starts with a chart labeled “Overview” to show where money comes from and where it goes; “Timeline” illustrates the two-year budgeting process; “Comparison” shows growth and reductions among the budget’s categories; “Detail” gets into the weeds. These friendly, interactive visualizations plumb the nearly 20,000 rows of budget data the city issues every two years.
Even with this, the diligent citizen with little expertise might be frustrated. The citizen can see that the city’s revenue and expenditures grew or shrank, but what happened to make it do so? How does she find out, say, how much food-truck permit revenue feeds the city library? How much did the street sweeping budget go down this year and, perhaps more interesting, why didn’t it go up instead?
Some people these days — including at least one author of a book on “data storytelling” — mistake stories for a parade of data visualizations. To them, a data story is a series of tenuously connected charts that assume data alone will interest everyday users enough to even try and make correct inferences. Dream on.
A real story — whether a “data story” or not — pulls people along sometimes despite themselves. Stories come in any medium in any length, from tiny fragments transmitted in grunts to complete and detailed sagas in a movies and books. Real stories fit in anywhere because they’re the human API, the place where life plugs in and makes sense.
A city’s budget has got a million stories lurking inside it. News reports tell a few, but that coverage can be scanty. Official reports tell more, but only under thick, ultra-safe polish that obscures not-so-pretty points. Scuttlebutt, so unreliable, fills in where no authentic story can fight it off.
Open Budget Oakland and other groups have to tell their own stories out front before users make up their own.
This is far from the whole story, of course, and I’m a newcomer to Open Oakland and civic tech. This is an ongoing query of mine. If you have something to add, please do so in a comment, below.