Rosie Williams

25th Jan 2019

Crowd funding is something I hate to do. It is meant to be the trendy way to fund projects and for people like me, the only way. I am not going to get government grants and expecting to increase government accountability and transparency while on their payroll is a questionable logic.

Since I embarked on building transparency projects in 2013, I've struggled with the question of how to fund my work. I originally thought budget data would be of interest to businesses. I thought it would be a traditional business yet when I was interviewed for the front-page story that appeared in the digital version of the Sydney Morning Herald on budget day 2014, I was described as a 'data activist'. I admit this surprised me at the time. Despite a long history of advocacy of marginalised groups that pre-dated the internet, it hadn't occurred to me that creating an app that allowed people to total funding across government portfolios constituted some kind of activism.

For one reason or another that business never got off the ground and I was stuck in a financial netherworld for the next years- still believing in the significance of what I had done and the knowledge it laid bare but unable to figure out how to properly engage people with it or make it self-sustaining. As the years progressed I became close with other transparency projects like the Open Australia Foundation and studied financial transparency both in Australia and overseas.

I learned that the size and scope of the philanthropy scene overseas contrasts radically with Australia and that Australian projects struggle due to these structural issues. The projects that do exist owe their survival to the passion and commitment of the founders, staff and volunteers, relying on a combination of grants from international organisations, selling services on a commercial basis and small donations from the public.

I eventually had to accept Newstart just to survive but with a background as a carer (albeit to a profoundly gifted child), my degree in sociology and growing list of technical skills meant nothing against my lack of employment history. In 2016 I sought a place in the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme which pays the same as Newstart and requires those who end up getting the go-ahead to earn what they would on Newstart by the end of the first nine months or be removed from the program.

This was the year Joe Hockey delivered the budget speech announcing small business tax incentives. It was also the year that NEIS was cut from the 12-month program it had been for the previous 25 years to what felt like a very short nine months. With only a fraction of the social media network I now have and trying to start a business on $300 a week (for both living and business expenses), I got no further in that time than building a reasonably complex site then establishing my first donors via Patreon- some of whom have been with me ever since.

Those nine months were up too soon and I was forced back onto Newstart where my application demanded I cancel my ABN. Having had this requirement put straight to my face, I felt no other option but to comply and lost whatever momentum I had.

It was around this time I took an interest in whistleblowing as I'd been made privy to the activities of some very powerful tax avoiders and as a result became security conscious for the first time in my life. My awareness that my safety was likely now at risk resulted in my new interest in privacy. This was all happening in the months leading up to the 2016 Census. That I had a front and centre seat to the government consultation on their plans to share data between agencies and jurisdictions, combined with my knowledge of data governance frameworks (apologies for the nerdy jargon), meant I understood the ethical and the legal implications of the government's plans for the coming Census.

Suddenly, I looked back at what appeared to be easy wins at the Open Government Action Plan consultation and realised these had already been decided and for reasons that had not been obvious till the ABS announced they would de-identify the 2016 Census. From that point on I was not just a transparency advocate but also a privacy advocate. I could now see both sides of the coin and understood why agencies could be so reticent to make administrative data open and available to the public.

This is when the wheels really started falling off for the government as the cautionary tales of the privacy experts played out in one embarrassing fail after another. Not only did the government's plans to use census information in ways inconsistent with the legislation not proceed unremarked (as they must have hoped), but not long after the shambles of the census were done, the Health Department had to admit to having published the most sensitive data- health and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme belonging to one in ten Australians as improperly anonymised open data!

Privacy was now a thing, not just in the mind of advocates such as myself, but in the media and increasingly on the minds of the general public as well. Data sharing and the 'data as the new oil' policy mind-set had become a battleground between the right to privacy of citizens in dealing with the government and the government's desire to integrate data across agencies to robo-debt their most vulnerable citizens.

Opening and sharing government data had turned out to be an ethical and political minefield which the government appears ill-equipped to manage. During this time I made several submissions contrasting what I saw as the aims of data sharing proposed by government – to provide transparency and accountability on citizens- with what I believed should be the intended use of open data – to provide transparency and accountability on government and the powerful interests they serve.

Still being broke and despite having enjoyed occasional media interest and a growing network of experts and general public alike, I tried to turn my interest in privacy into some kind of job but again, failed to get a toehold. I had put my transparency projects on the back burner during this period but received an invitation to submit a proposal to speak about my work with open data at Linux Conference Australia 2018.

Once I took a look at the prototype I had left online, I immediately felt I should redesign it. This lead to a wholesale expansion and re-design and it was while I was neck-deep coding up this massive new version that I re-committed seriously to financial transparency work.

I suddenly realised how powerful this work could be but I also had no idea of how ugly Australian politics was going to become during 2018, the year into which I was launching. I also kept adding data, and very complex hard-to-manage data at that.

While the launch at the conference went off well enough, by this stage I was utterly exhausted and as always with these projects, I am expected to fill every role so no sooner have I got the code to a place I can 'launch' but I am then expected to rush full tilt into engaging the media and a funding campaign as well- at a time when I have nothing left in the tank.

Unlike a weekend hackfest, before I can call my efforts a success, I have to do more than put together an MVP but I have to get the media and financial supporters behind me not just in theory but in practice. Trying to juggle all the roles is a heavy burden when the coding alone is enough to keep an entire team busy.

I lost my nerve a few months after the 2018 launch, having struggled with a particularly difficult dataset and having lost whatever momentum I had, I began to question if I could pull off such a difficult task? Around this time I got asked to write for Independent Australia as a regular columnist. Being my only income apart from small donations and having finally removed myself from Newstart for the first time in years, I was grateful for the opportunity. But the small amounts my writing could then attract saw me limping along from one crisis to another.

I considered giving up the transparency projects altogether but not without first understanding how I could have been so wrong to consider dumping a project I had already invested so much time and expertise in. I looked back to my expectations prior to launch and how it had not occurred to me that the media would come after the kind of campaigns that used my work, like anti-racism campaigners, Denise Shrivell and Sleeping Giants. While I wasn't personally targeted for criticism, I suddenly felt quite vulnerable to media investigation and attack.

On top of the real-life problems of regularly being threatened with homelessness, this was a bit more than I could cope with. I realised that in the lead up to the original launch I hadn't really considered how vulnerable people can be to media attack. Up until this juncture, my work had only ever been praised in the media so having my work appear in a negative article was a new and distasteful experience. The actual targets of the attacks (Denise and Sleeping Giants), seemed to take it all much better than I did.

Not only was I earning more money writing about privacy (albeit not a liveable income) but I had now become aware that providing the data that fuelled controversial campaigns might make me a target of the media as opposed to expecting their interest and protection. And then there is the funding to contend with.

Having returned to the project at the end of 2018 to make my final decision on its future, I found that the more I worked with it, the more confident I became. I ultimately decided to re-commit to the project instead of walking away. I thought over the year that had been, how much progress I'd made and the crises of confidence I'd faced. In the weeks that I spent implementing what now appeared to me as rather obvious improvements, I overcame the self-doubt that dragged me down in the months after launch.

As the weeks flew by, and my design grew in beauty and functionality, I managed to convince myself that this time when I launched, it would be obvious to people how much expertise and labour made up a project like this. I convinced myself that people could no longer doubt my technical skills.

But it's a massive project and by the time I was finished de-bugging the entire site, I hadn't been active as normal on Twitter for several months. I'd gone from monthly engagement rates of over 400k in mid 2018 to less than half that over the last month.

I became conscious of how ridiculous it is that I am expected to both build such a complex site but also do all the analysis that creates front-page stories, get the media on board (because no one cares if it isn't in the MSM) and no doubt inspire the next Royal Commission- all without the majority of my users having paid me a cent for my trouble!

I began to realise how unrealistic the expectations on me are, even if they stem mainly from myself. I decide that with this launch I would ask for the media to come with me, for the many journalists I know to actually put in some time to engage with the very large transparency project that I had built. After all it is not a hobby, it is an extremely large and complex database integrating open data for the purpose of holding the powerful to account.

Despite the courage I'd managed to find during the build, twenty-four hours into launch, I suddenly felt like a failure all over again. Having run a week over my deadline I was now left with only two weeks of income left in which to raise funds and recruit journalists. Having little immediate response, I began second guessing all the decisions I'd recently made.

It occurred to me that it might just be that the general public just won't pay for this kind of work. After all, the data is all open so it isn't like those who fund me get any privilege over those who do not. Not only that, but no matter what I do, transparency stories are always going to take work that the ailing media industry may just not want to fund.

It also dawned on me that maybe the same doubts I had been agonising over every day while coding (about the veracity of the code and data) might also worry journalists who would rest their credibility on my work. And then there is the drop in my self esteem that comes with asking the public for money.

I hate doing this. I hate admitting that I'm broke. Three days in from my soft re-launch and I had to start confessing my financial vulnerability and my new-found doubts. I considered the philosophical (or at least economic) questions about why people may or may not 'donate'.

I began to feel that they had a point. I had finally satisfied myself that my code was good (or as good as can be expected on such a large build) but that people's doubts are no more irrational than me putting myself through the same painful questions. Once I began sharing my innermost concerns, people began coming forward and donating. This gave me enough money to catch my breath and stall my decision to give it all up in defeat.

But I am left with the over-riding understanding that unless journalists or bloggers engage with the site then it will ultimately fail. At least now, thanks to my donors, I have more than an exhausted fortnight to test my luck. I have no idea of my chances with that. I seem to swing from confidence to self-doubt with alarming speed given the extent to which my work relies not only on my own abilities but on the kindness of strangers.

I want to thank everyone who has funded me both in years gone by and over the past days. Hopefully I can find a way to get out of this vicious crisis-led cycle which so undermines confidence in myself and my work. Donations mean as much to me psychologically as they do financially. My donors have renewed my hope in transparency and my confidence in my role in it. My next challenge is to build a small community of journalists and researchers willing to help tackle transparency and accountability. It's a tough challenge but I understand by now that running a transparency project is not a one person job so if I can't rustle up some writers after all my work and goodwill from the public then it might just be time to call it a day.

I hope you enjoyed reading 'LOOKING BACK AND BEYOND: CROWD FUNDING AND THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS' by Rosie Williams Consider sharing this article or becoming a patron of this work. Public support is my only source of income.