Mwazna: Government budget explained

Mwazna (‘budget’ in Arabic) recently launched in both English and Arabic. Planned for and beautifully executed by Amr Sobhy and Tarek Amr, Mwazna aims to break down financial complexities so anyone can understand where their money goes. I asked Amr and Tarek to answer five questions to elaborate on the vision they have for this initiative. Here are the answers: enjoy the read (and follow cheerful Mwazna on Twitter, too).

Screenshot of the website

Q1: In few words, what motivates you to build Mwazna? What do you want to use it for?

Amr Sobhy (AS): I by large care about information availability and use and always ponder through how can that affect and empower the average citizen. Budget has always been a vague area for me to understand and I as a citizen was motivated to learn more about it. General questions like how much do we spend on health or youth usually went unanswered and required great deal of search and digging deep into documents. That’s why I teamed up with Tarek to do Mwazna to create a platform to open budget for everyone.

Tarek Amr (TA): Open Data in general, and Open Government Data in particular, are of big interest to me. On one hand, it is related to my background and field of study (Data Science and Data Visualisation), and on the other hand it comes in resonance with my belief in the culture of freedom and openness as illustrated by for example Open Source Software and Creative Commons. Thus, Amr and I decided to pick one area and try to make the data there more accessible to everyone. And by accessible, I mean cleaned data in machine readable format and also accessible in the sense of it being put in easy-to-understand visuals.

Q2: Both of you have a long history of civic hacking: tracking the ruling elite’s achievements, empowering fact-checking platforms for citizen journalists, etc. are some of your past successes. But financial transparency is a different sort of endeavour. What brought you to budget?

AS: To me it’s all about information, curiosity and jealousy. As a citizen living this economic crisis we are going through, I wanted to learn more about the deficit, understand the debt and other relevant budgeting info and nothing was there for me. Also jealousy of other countries (like Tunisia) having great solutions to understand and monitor the budget.

TA: We chose the budget as our first venture: it is well-defined piece of information that people always discuss on a day-to-day bases. How much is spent on education? Has the expenditure on health increased or decreased in the last year? Etc. Also, you can say we chose a low hanging fruit, since the government budget is already published by the Ministry of Finance, yet we had to work on making it into an open format and represent it via easy to understand visuals. In other words, in order to open the budget data, the challenges we faced were more technical than legal ones, and thus it was easier for us to capitalize on our technical expertise than on other skills that we might lack.

Q3: Egypt is notoriously closed for anyone striving to get hold of data and actual facts: it ranked quite low in international Open Data assessments. May you elaborate on how you managed to obtain the data, verify it and release it under a Creative Commons license?

AS: We are not financial experts so we did pretty much what any citizen would do, go back to government public sources and read. We used the public official government financial statement – a hundred-seventy-three-page document – and went through to it to extract the most important data the average citizen would want to know or understand.

TA: As Amr said, our workflow, included extracting the data from different sources. Mostly manually, since the data is not in an open format. Then we had to come up with some architecture for storing the data after cleaning it, so that it becomes easy for us to add previous and future budgets anytime, do comparisons and translations for the data in an easy way. And eventually, offer the application we build as a Free and Open Source Software in the future for anyone to use it, though this needs some work from us still.

Q4: How was Mwazna received by people in Egypt and the region? Did you have direct feedback on think-tanks wishing to use it for advocacy, for ex.?

AS: I think it’s a very progressive process. It’s not meant to flip anything upside down. But to lay a foundation for understanding and dialogue. We are running into other stakeholders of this ecosystem everyday and think this might be helpful to them to make their job easier.

TA: I think Amr summed it up very well here.

Q5: What is next for Mwazna? Do you intend to reach out to govt or some public administration to advocate for more data to be released?

AS: I think the priority is to focus on re-use of these data by creating public APIs so anyone can actually build on the top of what we have.

TA: We currently offer the data in CSV format, we can easily add an API for others to make use of it. Nevertheless, we also want this website to serve as a hub meeting point for those who want to discuss the budget, analyze and visualise it.

Posted on: April 23, 2015, by :