Originally posted on the International Open Data Conference blog.

When we present data and information, the medium is often the message. “Download our full dataset (19MB),” sends a different message than “New figures suggest the oil spill would cover Lake Erie.” The tension between data depth and clear narratives is not a simple one, though. Sometimes the most important story data tells is in the relationships between data sets.

In the oil, gas and mining sector, a complex web of relationships governs the flow of money from private companies to governments to the local communities that benefit from government spending and services. Groups like Publish What You Pay and NRGI are in Ottawa discussing better tools to promote accountability in the extractive industries by extracting data on these fiscal flows, which can also include foreign aid and local taxes, among other things.

The World Bank has been working with colleagues from these fields to draft a tool that can illustrate the web of relationships in the extractive sector, and serve as a visual backdrop for posting data in context.

The first sketches are now available and we are pleased to present them below—as a work in progress—for feedback from the IODC community. Comments from our open data colleagues will help guide how we develop the tool from a simple image to a flexible system that can explain fiscal flows in a particular country, or can track gaps in data availability or disclosure rules.

We want to build from a “base image,” to collaboratively define a range of uses and adaptable “layers,” as the example layers illustrate.

follow_the_money_viz_DRAFT.2 follow_the_money_viz_DRAFT.3

Disclaimer: All images are works in progress. The layout is intentionally hypothetical and the Base Map does not represent any single country. The sample data is real, but neither complete nor verified against multiple sources.

Working with John Emerson, a veteran designer in the human rights field, we’ve deliberately begun modestly with a static picture not a fancy tool, in order to test our assumptions with users in the open data and Follow the Money communities. We believe that over time we can add layers that show harder-to-follow flows such as illicit and “gray” payments, political influence, and extra-national flows through corporate ownership structures and tax havens.

Michael Jarvis, Extractive Governance lead for the World Bank, says that the oil and mining sectors are an ideal starting point for “following the money,” because extractives dominate the budgets of many less developed countries, and a map like this can help donors and advocates link areas of current and potential work to several points in the system. “We hope it can be a conversation starter to bridge the work of people looking at the management of extractives with those thinking about public financial management, investment and procurement in resource-rich country settings.”

In open data circles, when someone says they’re making a visualization, your first thought might be a picture that’s beautiful but rather complicated, or a web tool that promises a windfall of analysis if you have the time and expertise.

By starting with a simple visual vocabulary, we think we can more clearly convey these fiscal systems to a wider group. We can also give government officials, international campaigners and open data advocates a tool to make the case for open data policies and good practices.

By making the tool flexible for future uses, we can help a range of different advocates and experts to explain and disseminate their work more easily, and hopefully save time and money rebuilding the wheel each time they create a new visualization.

Most importantly, we believe that by making a visualization that can be repurposed for different uses, we can give the groups that use it a channel for collaboration—or at least a common reference point to worked to greater interoperability of data.

Please note that these images are works in progress. The Base Map is generic, the sample layers have real data, but it has not been exhaustively compared to other sources. We know there’s no such thing as a generic map. The value for people comes when the image is populated with the flow or overlay that applies to them.

How could a visual tool like this be most useful to you? Which elements should be clickable and “expandable” to help your own work? Which measurements and assessments of money—and of data—can inform your own analysis or advocacy?

We encourage everyone in the IODC and open data communities to send input, feedback and ideas for potential uses of this visual tool. You can email us at ftmvisual@gmail.com.

Like open data itself, a tool that gets shared encourages links between the people sharing it. More links encourage more dialogue, which can make future collaborations more likely and more efficient.

Disclaimer: All images are works in progress. The layout is intentionally hypothetical and the Base Map does not represent any single country. The sample data is real, but neither complete nor verified against multiple sources.

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