The first interactive infographic ever made of a Hong Kong government budget was produced by the JMSC Data Journalism Lab (DJL) on Wednesday, February 27, minutes after Financial Secretary John Tsang addressed the 2013-2014 budget report press conference.
Inspired by the New York Times‘ interactive diagram of President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal, the infographic is a visual representation of the $355 billion the government estimates it will spend this coming fiscal year.
The estimated expenditures, which are usually buried in official government budget reports, are presented in a way that allows journalists and the public to clearly see where the money goes and how much will be spent by each department.
“The government doesn’t release the budget in an open format”, said Cedric Sam, a journalist and programmer who runs the Data Journalism Lab at the JMSC. “It’s released as a series of .pdf documents. So you can’t use them for any kind of comparison whatsoever. If the government wanted the information to be used it would be released in an open or machine readable or textual format, not .pdf. This is a big problem for citizen and press empowerment in Hong Kong, where the ability to look at data more easily would help people do more analysis and know what’s going on”.
To solve the problem, Sam wrote a computer program based on past budget reports to distill the important information from the government’s version of the budget – the program scans the .pdf documents, removes the budget numbers, and then displays them in an infographic which enables users to manipulate, analyze and compare them easily.
“It’s an unprecedented way for normal citizens to look at the budget”, Sam said. “The interface allows for clicking and sorting and seeing the details of the budget online, giving people the ability to read the data better than they have before”.
One of the things the infographic shows is how big the Hong Kong budget is. It also shows that “Miscellaneous Services” will receive the largest amount of money, $57,272 million, followed by the Social Welfare Department which will receive $54,722.8 million. And the budget report revealed a huge surplus from the previous year.
What are “miscellaneous services”? Why is the surplus so big? Does the government overestimate the budget on purpose? How can the income gap be approaching record levels when the forecast for fiscal reserves is $734 billion? Where should all the money go?
Sam said that the infographic is designed to be used as a tool to help to begin to answer those questions.
“Maybe Hong Kong overestimates the budget every year to seem like they are losing money or to make corporate taxes a larger part of the revenue”, Sam said. “Maybe Social Security is getting the second biggest part of the budget, more than Education or Health, because of all the pensions and public housing and things that are needed to keep the social peace” – these are the kinds of stories that data journalism and data visualizations begin to uncover.
The Data Journalism Lab, which was launched as a pilot project at the JMSC last November, sorts through a variety of data, like the Hong Kong budget report, and then visualizes the data to find the stories that may not be apparent at first look. Sam said that the lab is attempting to “push the boundaries of data journalism, and bring computer science and information technology into the practice of journalism” in order to tell deeper and more important stories.
Prior to the Data Journalism Lab, Sam worked for the JMSC on both the Open Government Initiative, which collects data the Hong Kong government has made available to the public and analyzes it, and the WeiboScope. The WeiboScope tracks and captures posts that are deleted from Sina Weibo, one of the many social media websites that have sprung up in China after the government blocked Twitter and Facebook at the beginning of 2009.
Sam is assistant teaching Computational Journalism at the JMSC this semester. He is on Twitter at @cedricsam and maintains a blog called The Electric Rice Cooker. He will be speaking at the Eyeo Festival, which explores how data will be used in the future, in Minneapolis, Minnesota in June.
For more information on Data Journalism courses at the JMSC click here.