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!

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