The Nigerian government has come under fire at various levels, on several occasions, in the wake of controversial socio-economic policy decisions and a persistent gap in effective communication between the goverment and the governed. Budget planning, allocation and implementation consitute an important aspect of governance and the need for openness, simplicity and logic cannot be ignored. Oluseun Onigbinde studied Electrical engineering in the University but a short career in banking was enough to him reveal a unique opportunity to contribute positively towards his country’s development. He left his banking job to co-found and focus on BudgIT, a creative start-up that aims to relate the Nigerian government’s annual budget and other public data in finer details to the citizenry. With this, the team hopes to stimulate the interst of citizens in discussions and debates around public data, towards better governance. “We are committed to principles of open data and governance, citizen participation and data transparency,” he says. In this interview with Gbenga Awomodu, Seun explains how his team is helping the Nigerians to make sense of the annual government budgets.
Could you tell us about yourself – education, growing up, and career?
I am Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder of BudgIT. Growing up was in the middle class family. We were never relishing in opulence and we still didn’t pick up from the floor. I had a tough Mum. You know how a primary school teacher who keeps good canes in custody would be. I love her and I appreciate those days of discipline. Those were the formative years of my life. I had primary and secondary school in Ibadan. Secondary school was a smooth sail with nine distinctions. Back then I just had to face my studies. Remember I told you about my wonderful mum? I attended the University of Agriculture to study Engineering; got involved in school politics; led an engineering student body. I worked in two banks before I left to focus on BudgIT. I like reading. In the split second, if I string narrative together I might take a sharp cross from a novice to an expert. Same with all the ideas I have tried to pursue.
What is BudgIT all about and how did you conceive the idea?
I worked with First Bank as a strategy analyst. For a short period, I was focused on support in the public sector team. As you try and craft a strategy, you know you need lots of data to validate assumptions. I was just running through streams of data and I was amazed how much skill gap I had in budget issues. A friend of mine days later made a presentation on Nigeria’s revenue sharing and I said to myself, this is it. I looked at an Estonia model and I said to myself, I could this and even better. I got involved in a Co-creation Hub Hackathon and interestingly we came second. We got funding of $2,000. That was how the snap dream became the real deal.
Who are the primary targets of BudgIT and what is your strategy to ensure that they are adequately served?
The society and I mean everyone. I have a belief in information equity. Everyone deserves to be included in this age about monetary and fiscal information. In this new era of bottom up information which has a potential of being unruly and false, you still need an independent agent to lay the facts on the table. That’s what BudgIT aims to do. We resist the temptation to become opinionated. It’s about making budgets and public data simpler and accessible. Now we need to appraise the level of citizen interests and most especially how to stimulate that. We need to determine the right amount of data for every level of literacy. What’s the importance of external trade data to a Lalupon farmer? Just get him how much his LGA chairman got in a month and possibly send that through SMS. So, it’s an ongoing effort. We are trying to promote data-driven journalism. Focus on creatively using the data to tell stories and form narratives. However, it’s a phased approach. We are strengthening our social media presence for the urban elite, next is to move to the upward mobile semi-urban Nigerian and finally get to the rural areas.
We will explore all means possible to excite him about data. Try look at his footprint, tools accessible to him such as radio, SMS and even localized newsletters. It’s all about rethinking the paradigm and bringing all the solutions that can make him better informed.
How do you access budget data from the federal government, state governments and other data sources?
We want to follow the facts so it’s more about rigorous gathering from various sources – government portals, newspapers and other websites. You will need some intelligence to string them together and make it a whole. Let’s leave it at that.
Aside from the federal government budget for 2012, you only have budget data from just four other states on your website. Do you have others available offline too?
Most states don’t publish their full budgets as it should be. You have them thinking of their opponents and possibly the use of the data to tell a different story. That’s being repulsive to change. I read an article written by my former employer Dele Olojede titled “Let there be light”. When we hide under the toga of secrecy, we are awakening ghosts of the military regime. Openness is key to better democracy, development and societal trust and inclusion. That we have access to federal budget in pdf (though not in open standard CSV format) is a plus. I pray all the states get to that level. That’s the floor level of open data. In this federal structure, it is difficult to enforce an open budgeting standard unless you force through the constitution. Who’s responsible for rewriting the constitution? Same government, but it can only get better.
Could you shed more light on the Budget Cut App which you have created; how does it work and how has it fared since you introduced it?
Budget Cut app was a discussion between Co-Creation Hub and EiENigeria. I was planning to join protests on that open theft of Nigerian resources. In the end, BudgIT had to take the lead and finally we can with a game changer for BudgIT. It stemmed out of the waste in government and how citizens should bear more burden due to the hike in fuel prices. In the end we created budget simulation at www.yourbudgit.com/kut/. Over 3,500 used the platform in 72 hours. Developed by Co-creation Hub developers, citizens can see the structure of the budget and make cuts to certain sections. It was a good one and we are trying to get it better for the 2013 budget.
What are the notable challenges you often have to tackle in achieving your startup’s objectives?
Once you have the guts and innate passion to get something, every obstacle becomes a springboard; challenges of getting data from government, meeting expectations of excited citizens about government data and how we have to put data through several format conversions and still ensure accuracy. Challenges of funding persist as the lean team consists of four people. Only two work on the project fulltime. Good developers are costly. Thank God for CCHub developers who did pro bono. We can’t afford full staff, so we invite people via twitter, screen them for data entry and pay them for the few days. It’s a survival game. We just have to get it done.
How and where did you raise your startup capital from?
We only get grants to survive. Grant of $8,000 from Indigo trust is all we ever had. You can’t take away the personal commitments of people. I could not afford to add a price tag. We have great support from Co-Creation Hub, Nigeria’s first incubation and living lab. Even when the grant ended, we had to continue spending. BudgIT is not an NGO so we will not be grant-dependent. We are evolving our strategy in terms sustainability.
What is the size of your team and how did you constitute the team?
A team of four core members. I have a larger group of advisers. Joseph Agunbiade, a committed tech developer of the platform and Maryam Edun. It’s about being ready and committed to the vision.
In May 2012, BudgIT received a grant from the Nigeria Internet Group; how much was that and how have you deployed that into your operations?
We have a grant of N1 million from Nigerian Internet Group. We are still working on removing hurdles for disbursement.
How do you hope to make profit from your work at BudgIT and what are your projections for the next two to five years?
Profit is not a core objective. The strategy to keep it self-sustaining is just okay for us. We are testing different models and we will craft the right strategy to get that working. For medium projections, possibly I need to string figures for a VC to make him understand, investing in BudgIT is a big bet.
You are currently in Helsinki for the ongoing Open Knowledge Festival. what are you up to over there and how are your plans being fuildilled?
BudgIT is part of an Open Knowledge Foundation working group building a global database of government monetary documents. The Open Knowledge Festival is organised by the Finnish Institute and Open Knowledge Foundation. We are part of the Open spending group trying to map open technologies for development around the world. I am representing BudgIT and making presentations on open data and technology in Africa. We were invited to speak speaker on open development in Africa and how we can explore means of making data connect to more Nigerians. I have met great people from the World Bank and ICT4D in Sweden and they are fascinated with our work. We plan to finalise a round of funding during the festival. This is very necessary as we want to expand our team.
What else would you like to tell BellaNaija readers?
BudgIT is a platform you should use and gradually we are getting and trying more patterns and access models to make public data simple, accessible and understandable across every literacy span.
Gbenga Awomodu is an Editorial Assistant at Bainstone Ltd./BellaNaija.com. When he is not reading or writing, Gbenga is listening to good music or playing the piano. Follow him on Twitter: @gbengaawomodu | Gbenga’s Notebook: www.gbengaawomodu.com | Facebook Page: Gbenga Awomodu