Ideas for social and visual budgeting software

I have been thinking about data visualisations a lot, which reminded me of one of the ideas I want to develop one day, but I will probably have to learn to code, so it’s some way off.

The idea is a visual participatory budgeting tool.  It would mash up (for example) spreadsheet software with Google Earth and an image bank of animations of things like people walking, a bus driving, a midwife, a school.  It would help people working with others to plan  a budget in a way that can be understood by everybody, not just the person with the unenviable task of wrangling the Excel workbook.

The idea behind it is that all programme budgets that we do in NGOs involve trade-offs, because if you put money into one thing, you are usually be definition not putting money in something else.  There’s not really a ‘line of sight’ (see what I did there) between the changes you make in a budget as you make the trade-offs during the process, and what that feels like in practise. For example, imagine you are planning a health programme in a particular area.  You can afford six well equipped health centres with a staff of 6 people each, catering to a host of health needs.  Then someone comes up with an innovative idea for something using solar power.  Everyone loves solar power, it’s as irresistible to funders as a basket of kittens.  You really feel you’ve just got to include the solar powered  camel transported pharmacy or whatever the innovation is.   Someone says that you should do research about the innovation to see if it’s effective so that you can scale it up properly later, so you put some research in the budget as well.  Ooowee, academics cost a lot!  So you’re over-budget.  If you cut some centres that means some communities will still not be anywhere near a health centre.  So someone suggests that you have two proper centres, but four basic health posts with two staff.  So you draw them roughly and put them where they might go on google earth.  That makes it easier to see what sort of roads and terrain you’re looking at.  Are they physically impassable?  If you know how many miles each health post is from the centre, you can quickly calculate petrol.

Perhaps you could take it even further in making budgeting truly social.  Someone draws a floorplan, and asks the community on social media for three ballpark costs for building something on that scale.  You get the thinky thinky people in the hivemind to do a quick and dirty peer review of your innovation idea.    You could overlay the maps with environmental data, so you know you’re not proposing to build a new school on a flood plain.  Or data from the UN about conflict levels so that you’re not siting that school between rebel groups and the government.

Would this kind of budgeting/planning  software be commercial?  I can see how you would use it in a development project when it’s really important to get participation in the project right from the beginning.  And it would probably live in Beta for a long long time and look really rough to begin with.   Someone would still have to wrangle it into an elegant but chunky set of workbooks for the funder.  Would it be useful for businesses, e.g. in doing market assessments when they are thinking about expanding services into new areas?  Would it help them consult a more diverse range of people and therefore get a more rounded view of what their new strategy might cost them?

But I think it could go somewhere, even if not as an accurate budgeting tool, then as a way to think differently about development.  As we integrate nanotechnology into our bodies and we become part of the internet of things, it should get easier to virtually feel our way into a budget (unless we decide that actually we’re going to go all out on a rearguard action for privacy and biological determinism).  We might be able to do a simulation of the programme we are trying to create.  Obviously that would work better for physical, infrastructure heavy kinds of programmes than intangible governance ones.  But in terms of getting more diversity of thought into the whole project planning experience, it could be a good way to go, and if it can build more ownership and support more bottom-up approaches to sustainable development, I would love to see it happen.

I’m sure that other people are thinking the same way, or even that someone is already working on it.  If anyone is, I would love to hear from them.  Maybe it’s already out there, please let me know if it is as I would love to use it.    And if I’ve sub-consciously nicked this idea from one of the brilliant practically minded brainiacs I’ve worked with along the way, tell me and claim your idea – and then make it!


Grasping complexity: data visualisation and cities

I have been looking at visualisations in relation to cities.  Mainly because I stumbled across Luminocity 3d and I thought it was beautiful, but I didn’t understand it, so I had to spend some time looking at it until it started to make sense.  A bit like those fractal pictures people used to have on their walls when we were students.

Picture from Luminocity 3D website

Luminocity 3D work journey flows at

I have been interested in data visualisations in general for some time.  The main reason is that I hope that visualisations could help make the cognitive leap we need to cope with complexity.  I have always been enchanted by words and narrative.  But as I grow older – words fail me.  Mainly they fail me because there is too much stuff around that is really, really important, that I will never have time to read about it and that makes me stressed about whether I’m going to make the wrong choices.  I suspect I’m not alone in this.  My oldest friend Annika Mckee has recently introduced me to the concept of heuristics, which I understand as the study of the mental wiring that helps us take short-cuts through information, which we often need to, because the information is overwhelming and only a small proportion is relevant.  Data visualisations cannot be the only tool we use, if only because relying exclusively on visualisation would exclude blind and partially sighted people (I doubt that Luminocity would be understood by a screen-reader).  My question is whether data visualisations could be a way to help answer some of the questions in sustainability more quickly so that we can stay away from the environmental, social and economic cliff-edge that is out there somewhere in the dark.  They are increasingly part of the way that people tell stories about issues on social media.

I love cities (because they are exciting, diverse and liberating) and I know that these complex systems are a huge nexus for both anxieties and manifestos of hope regarding sustainability. That cities are a ‘megatrend’   has become accepted wisdom, and as such, it should be unpacked.  The challenges are well documented.  Cities account for 37–49% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions while urban infrastructure accounts for over 70% of global energy use (figures from Climate Change: Implications for Cities, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership 2014). So my first question is whether visualisations can help us understand some of the sustainability opportunities around cities.

There is the challenge of defining a city, and of what to say about the people who carry on living in small towns and the countryside, almost as if the fact that ‘Cities are Megatrending’ (said everyone ever writing a strategy in the last five years) is less important than having a nice quality of life and knowing your neighbours.  The Metropolitan Revolution: ‘How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy’ (Katz and Bradley, 2013) talks (zealously) about metropolitan areas rather than cities, defined as ‘a collection of municipalities that together form a unified labor market and is often defined statistically by the commuting patterns of its residents between home and work.’ (p2).  Eurostat provides a more detailed definition.  In the UK debate about whether cities like London or Manchester should have more financial powers of their own, I don’t think it has really got into the public mind yet that this might have significant impacts on people outside the city, who might or might not consider themselves in any way dependent or financially responsible for the city.

So that was a bit of complexity to use to test whether data visualisation was a way to work through the question of ‘who is linked to the city’ without piling through all the statistics on the internet.  I looked on LuminoCity 3D at  the chart showing the flows of journeys to work.  Apologies for the UK- centric and London-centric approach here, but I live and work in London , so I looked first at London and saw it defined by a new set of borders based on commutes.  If you define it by the visual you see on LuminoCity 3D, then London stretches to Ipswich (Suffolk) to the East, to the Kent and East Sussex coastlines at Margate, Folkestone and Brighton, to Reading in Berkshire in the West, and Stevenage in Hertfordshire to the North.  This map gives me a mental sketch that tells me that 9 counties around London have very significant numbers of people commuting to London every day.  It would be interesting at some point to see whether the London Metropolitan area now extends further than the Eurostat definition, simply because the combination of house prices and okay (well, sort of okay) transport links create the market for massive commutes.

You can go into more detail on LuminoCity 3D.  The chart on the left hands side tells you quickly that 832,000 people commute into London from other places every day, 20% of its population of employees.  That’s more than the population of Sheffield and more than 10% of the number of residents in London.  But it’s not all one way.  9% of London’s employed residents commute out.  I can’t tell where to, because the lines on LuminoCity don’t show direction of travel.

Looking away from London, Brentwood is fascinating as nearly 80% of its residents commute out, but 80% of its employees commute in.

I’d love to know how this all breaks down further.  Are women or men more likely to work near home, or is that possibly something that happens for the rich and the poor, while the middle gets (literally) squeezed on the commuter trains?  LuminoCity only has UK data so we don’t visualise the elites who travel globally for work, what would they add to the picture?  Why do so few people who live in Brentwood do jobs in Brentwood?  Is it choice, or lack of choice?  Who commutes to Brentwood and where are they coming from?   What does the ‘good enough’ snapshot of commuter flows across Britain tell me about cities and opportunities for sustainable business (without having to think too much)?

Infrastructure and communications:

I’d make a bet that all these millions of people moving around the country every day to get to their job is not great for our carbon emissions.  There may be a huge business and sustainability opportunity for companies developing home-working and e-meeting services.  Personally I believe also in the social impacts of flexi-working.  Less time on a train means more time with your family, or painting a picture, meeting your mates in the pub, chatting to your neighbours or digging in the allotment.

There is a new trainline proposed that will connect Oxford and Cambridge via Milton Keynes.  Presumably at certain points in the timetable this will mean that Milton Keynes is briefly the most thinky-thinky town in Britain.  Maybe Silicon Fen will start commuting in from little towns to the West of Cambridge.  Maybe Apple should set up a new store in Milton Keynes to sell tech gadgets to the Fentrepreneurs who want to spend their leisure time browsing new smart phones.  If I was Bristol or Colchester, I’d be lobbying for that trainline to be extended to me.  Imagine what that East-West university highway could do to Britain.  The exchange of thoughts, and wonderful R&D hubs and new businesses popping up all along it gathering and commercialising the best innovations from UK academia south of Leeds/Manchester and north of London, as well as giving Britain a new axis to distract us from the North-South divide.

Building new homes, commercial and civic spaces

Barratt Homes did a study for Centre for Cities on the need for more housing around London.  Well, yes, people don’t want to spend 15 hours or more a week on a crowded, unreliable train, although I find it depressing that there are no voices talking about putting more good jobs in the places where people already live.  There are alternatives for small and mid-sized towns with some investment: you could turn your market square into a wifi hotspot (as piloted in my Finnish harbour-side hometown of Oulu) and let the people work from picnic tables in the summer – maybe with renewably powered device charging stations.  If we could make that work well, wouldn’t that be more beautiful as well as fun and productive?  But if you must build houses where the jobs are right now, rather than spread the jobs around more equally, then the type of houses and the type of communities such projects would build are huge sustainability questions. You could build an architecturally gorgeous and fully BREEAM certified housing complex but forget that the local schools can’t cope with that many new kids and have a big local rift on your hands.

New businesses:  is there a way to pick through this data and identify where you could find the skills and workforce to set up a new business or new branch office?  Breathing new life into places, building on historic industries and creating exciting new opportunities for people.  This is actually a live question for my family because himself and I want to move to the coast one day and need the economy and national business culture to catch up with our aspirations  – or just get off our lazy behinds and figure out how to do it ourselves.

It’s clear that cities are major zones for the production of the effects that produce climate change, and it’s also clear after all this gazing at Luminocity 3D that the policy definition of a metro area has nothing much to do with the cultural image of a city.  Data visualisation has helped me bridge that gap between my romantic image of London from Waterloo Bridge, and the opportunities that businesses and social enterprises may have in making metro areas into places where people can live well without compromising the lives of future generations (the core of the Brundtland statement on sustainability), or the lives of people living outside the city.  Could thinking through what the mega-city looks like help us build better human-scale communities within the city, and even provide benefits to people who live at or outside the boundary of our own metro?


Luminocity 3D preview image
Luminocity preview image – the transport map here is even more Matrix-like…: