Egypt’s revolution will get a shot in the arm with data to show how the government spends its money

Burned former HQ of Mubarak’s National Demoratic Party
Burned former HQ of Mubarak’s National Demoratic Party
Image: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
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The Egyptian government decided last week to demolish the torched headquarters of former president Mubarak’s now dissolved party the National Democratic Party. Protestors had burned the building hugging the corniche of the Nile during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution on 28 January 2011. It was a potent symbol of the secret cronyism and corrupt elitism that marked 30 years of Mubarak’s rule that was eventually toppled.

Since then initiatives to embrace fiscal transparency and keeping the government accountable with taxpayer money are taking place in Egypt’s flourishing technology landscape.

Mwazna (budget in Arabic) the brainchild of a data scientist, Tarek Amr, and a web developer and hacker, Amr Sobhy, aims to inform Egyptians on how their money is being spent through an easy to use Arabic and English site.

Mwazna’s desktop site
Mwazna’s desktop site

“You can call us geeks or technology facilitators,” Amr told Quartz about their collaboration. The idea for the site came during an international hackathon focused on open data earlier this year.

“It’s not a very fun subject” Sobhy, a 26-year old social entrepreneur who is behind similar ventures such as Morsi Meter– an accountability tool assessing former president Mohamed Morsi’s political performance – noted to Quartz.

He explained that “the details of where Egypt’s money comes from and where it goes is not entirely due to a lack of data, but that the existing data is not open or reusable”.

Egypt ranked 91 out of 102 countries on the recently released Open Government Index. Based on four categories measuring government openness, Egypt’s highest-ranking dimension was publicized laws and government data.

“There’s not enough comprehensive data publicly shared by the government in an open format and the process is not standardized. If you are lucky you end up with some PDFs and PowerPoint presentations” Sobhy added.

Overall the site’s creators maintain that the government is doing a fair job of disseminating financial information but technically it is poor because it’s not machine readable and must be sifted through manually.

Amr Sobhy and Tarek Amr of Egypt’s Mwazna
Amr Sobhy and Tarek Amr of Egypt’s Mwazna

With some 56% of Egypt’s 48 million Internet users accessing via their mobile devices the founders are unsurprisingly looking to develop a mobile app. But they lack resources at present as this is a volunteer project without any external funding. For now they would rather crowd-source its mobile platform from developers once the site is completely open source.

Osama Diab, an expert on stolen assets and corruption at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, contends that “in Egypt, the rule is to conceal information, and the exception is to disclose”.

He explained to Quartz that the government releasing macro budgetary statements does not really enable Egyptians to hold it to account.

“What does it mean for a citizen to know that the government is spending 40 billion pounds ($5.2 billion) on education and 90 billion pounds ($11.8 billion) on health. What really matters is the budget allocated to fixing roads in the village, or the budget allocated to the school in the neighbourhood” Diab said.

The site is technically lean and does not profess to do more than it can with what it’s given encapsulated in its pithy tagline “an attempt to explain and visualize the government budget for everyone.”

With Mwazna joining other similar apps in Egypt like Bey2ollak, a traffic notification app  for Cario’s busy roads, Amr is hoping for more “techies and hackers to build tools that help citizens solve their day to day problems”.