Open Knowledge


The Spending Data Handbook is addressed to people and organisations who want to use and understand government budgets and spending data in their work. These groups may include government oversight and accountability groups, issue oriented advocacy organisations, journalists covering the latest round of budget cuts or austerity measures, or citizens who just want to inform themselves on what their government is spending. The truth is that for many countries, it's never been easier to access the underlying data relating to government budgets and spending and the expectations have never been higher for governments to release this information in a timely manner. But once you've got the information, making sense of it can be daunting.

Irrespective of which kind of user is approaching this data, they all have one thing in common: they need to manipulate, analyse and interpret data in their work. Increasingly, we are bombarded with statistics and figures from governments and political parties and it is the job of these organisations to scrutinise and fact-check them, as well as come up with alternative models and solutions. This requires timely, data driven analysis.

If these groups think that "topic-driven analysis" can drive positive change within governments, there is another group at whom this book is addressed: a strange race of people who self-identify as "civic hackers" and think that technology can be put to work to make government as easy, accessible and effortless for citizens as the internet. While these groups use data processing tools in their day to day lives, their focus is often on enabling others to act on information, rather than having a particular advocacy aim themselves (though there are a few notable exceptions to this rule).

DON'T PANIC! This book uses a bit of technical vocabulary and terms that may be unfamiliar or used differently in different circles. Anything in italics such as hacker in this paragraph, can be found in the glossary at the back, it may not mean what you think.

The range of topics tackled by these groups is so diverse that it would be impossible to address all of the questions and issues in one humble book. However, there are some overarching principles and helpful techniques which apply universally to working with government financial data and particularly, how technology might help to do so. This book aims to highlight areas where civic hackers, citizens, Civil Society Organisations (henceforth CSOs), and civil servants working in the field of government transparency could combine forces to achieve common aims. Like the Open Data Handbook (, it will be available as a continually evolving, open, educational resource on the internet.

What we will cover in this book

  • Collaborating with other organizations to pool resources and strengthen your advocacy effort
  • If you're just starting out, what data to look for and what to ask for (nay, demand!) from your government
  • The 'Data Pipeline': Tricks and tips for finding, wrangling and systematically processing your data
  • Getting ambitious, running a technology project
  • Presenting your findings to engage the public, media and government
  • Lists and appendices of technical and non-technical resources

The Data Processing Pipeline

How the book was created

The book was started at a four day book sprint bringing together organisations from around the world from both a technical and a CSO background. Representatives from the Open Knowledge Foundation (UK), Fundar (Mexico), the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (India), the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (Bosnia and Herzegovina), and the Sunlight Foundation (US) contributed to the original document. The Book Sprint was facilitated by Adam Hyde, founder of the Book Sprint method and

Why are we writing this?

As people who work with this data, we know better than anyone that a few years of a handful groups spreading awareness of spending data to the general public has not been sufficient for enacting earth-shattering change in the budgetary policies and processes in governments around the world. While it's true there's more spending data available than ever before, these efforts have proven to be superficial in some cases and the budget processes themselves have not become much more transparent or participatory.

Conversely, the armchair auditors that were expected to emerge from the citizenry never really materialised. The notion of citizen auditors and engaging with citizens on an individual and collective basis still struggles to make headway. Clearly, we need to take solutions to this problem to the next level. More groups need to be more involved than ever before.

What makes this work so tricky?

  • The data people need is not available to the public (and to CSOs).
  • Alternatively, the data is not available until after all the important decisions within government have been made.
  • It's difficult to simplify data as complex as budgets and spending and make it accessible to a variety of audiences.
  • The discourse on budgets and governance in the country is usually replete with jargon and technicalities.
  • Even when compelling research findings are presented, there's no sense of urgency on the part of key policy actors. Advocacy with a range of stakeholders becomes important.
  • There is duplication of efforts. One CSO may invest two weeks of its resources into painstakingly cleaning up and extracting data from a policy document published as a PDF while another will be doing exactly the same thing.
  • Organizations doing this work often lack any kind of peer review process among similar groups.
  • There may be skills gaps at many CSOs. Skill and knowledge sharing can help all of them achieve common goals.

Contribute to the book

This book is released under a Creative Commons attribution licence, meaning that anyone is free to use and reuse the material provided that it is attributed to the Spending Data Handbook. You can help by doing one of the following:

  • Translate it and customise it for your region. The examples which we include here are the ones which we know best, however, you may feel that in your area, there are topics or examples which would be more relevant. Take the book, remix it and add your own examples.
  • Correct it and update it - treat it like a Wikipedia article, a living document. The only way that this book will stay relevant and factually correct is with the help of you and other people who know your stuff.
  • Be inspired - we are filling the book with lots of examples of visualisation and data so inspire you and people you work with.