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December 27 2011

‘Developing Latin America': Open Data Projects

[All links lead to Spanish language pages except when otherwise noted]


Desarrollando America latina
Previously we reported on [en] the ‘Developing Latin America' competition (Desarrollando América Latina), or #DAL, a public hackathon that aims to create technological solutions to problems in education, security and public budget, in six countries in the region. Now it's time to report its results.

The Intelligent Citizen Foundation [en] (Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente), which organised the event, determined that there were local winners, in addition to the general and regional winners, so the competitiveness in each venue was an added ingredient to the challenge of managing to complete an interesting application based on existing open data, within the time limit.

CitiVox [en] and OpenDataMx talk about the event in Mexico:

Parte del equipo mexicano. Foto de Desarrollando América Latina.

Part of the Mexican team. Photo by Desarrollando América Latina.

participaron poco menos de 50 jóvenes, de varios estados de la república, desde Sonora hasta Oaxaca. Se formaron diez equipos que trabajaron en 30 horas en diversos temas, desde seguridad pública hasta la transparencia de la nómina estatal. Finalmente presentaron sus proyectos ante un jurado formado por Mónica Aspe (Coordinación de la Sociedad de la Información y el Conocimiento, SCT), Eric Gundersen (Seed Development) y Andrés Lajous (revista Nexos). Después de escuchar las presentaciones de los equipos y de deliberar se anunció que el segundo lugar sería para el proyecto Nuestra Info por su vanguardia y potencial para presentar datos públicos difíciles de accesar. El primer lugar fue para Xmatch por hacer accesible la información y la visualización comparativa de datos en mapas.

little fewer than 50 young people, from various states, from Sonoro to Oaxaca took part. They made up ten teams that worked for 30 hours on different subjects, from public security to the transparency of the governmental payroll. In the end they presented their work in front of a panel made up on Mónica Aspe (Coordinación de la Sociedad de la Información y el Conocimiento, SCT), Eric Gundersen (Seed Development) and Andrés Lajous (Nexos magazine). After listening to the teams' presentations and deliberating, they announced that second place would go to the Nuestra Info (Our info) project for it's orginality and its potential to present difficult-to-access public data. First place went to Xmatch for making the visualisation of comparative data maps and information accessible.

Fayerwayer did the same on the Chilean side:

En Chile, el evento […] se llevó a cabo en la Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, concluyendo con la presentación de nueve proyectos de Santiago y cuatro de Temuco. […] Los tres primeros lugares fueron:

  • Proyecto “Escuela Popular”: desarrollado por los ucranianos residentes en Chile Oleh Burkhay y Nadiia Vasylchenko, se trata de un portal que permita tener información actualizada y profunda de los colegios y escuelas del país. […] permite a las personas entregar puntos según diferentes indicadores a cada colegio, y comentar respecto al mismo, entregando mejor información a los padres que estén buscando la mejor alternativa.
  • Proyecto “Presupuéstate”: […] busca proyectar cuánto necesitan ahorrar a largo plazo los padres de un estudiante para pagar la universidad del hijo. La aplicación hace el cálculo según el sueldo de la persona, mostrando una proyección de los aranceles según carrera. También hace recomendaciones de qué colegios pueden servirle al alumno para entrar a la carrera que quiere, según los puntajes PSU [Prueba de Selección Universitaria] de corte de cada carrera.
  • Proyecto “Punto Seguro”: es una plataforma donde las personas de un barrio pueden marcar en el mapa un lugar de conflicto (donde ocurren robos, violencia, etc) y generar una discusión con los vecinos donde dar ideas sobre cómo combatir esa situación (instalar luminarias, organizar sistemas de alarma entre vecinos, etc).
In Chile, the competition took place at the Adolfo Ibáñez University, ending with a presentation of nine projects from Santiago and four from Temuco. The top three were: 
  • “Public School” project (Proyecto “Escuela Popular”): Developed by Ukrainians Oleh Burkhay and Nadiia Vasylchenko living in Chile, it is a portal that allows accurate and detailed information about schools in the country. It allows people to give points to schools regarding different categories and comment about them, thus giving better information to parents who are looking for the best option.
  • “Budget yourself” project (Proyecto “Presupuéstate”): It sought to project how much parents would need to save in the long term to be able to pay for their child to go to university. The application made a calculation based on a person's salary, showing a projection of different tariffs relating to different careers. It also made recommendations about which schools could help the students enter the degree path they desire, according to the University Selection Test grades taken from each degree.
  • “Safe Point” project (Proyecto “Punto Seguro”): A platform where people from a neighbourhood can mark a conflict area (where robberies, violence e.t.c occur) on a map and create discussions with neighbours, in which they exchange ideas about how to combat the situation (install streetlamps, organise alarm systems amongst neighbours e.t.c).
Parte de los equipos peruanos. Foto de Maru Panta/Escuelab.

Part of the Peruvian teams. Photo by Maru Panta/Escuelab.

In Perú, Escuelab reports about the winners from the 12 participating groups (Disclaimer: I [Juan Arellano] was part of the DAL panel in Lima):

El jurado otorgó el primer lugar al grupo #OTA por el proyecto Quiero Ir! que mediante un punto de inicio indicado manualmente o usando el GPS muestra en un mapa las rutas (líneas de transporte público) que llevan al usuario hasta el destino seleccionado. La aplicación ofrece además información referente a la empresa de transporte (número de ruta, distrito inicial, distrito final, etc) así como una foto referencial de la unidad.

En segundo lugar se eligió al equipo SEUSS. Su aplicación presupuestando.pe, brinda información de manera dinámica acerca de los indicadores presupuestales de los gobiernos regionales y locales proporcionando un fácil acceso a la información incentivando la participación ciudadana. (Presupuesto a nivel nacional). El proyecto se puede ver aquí: http://bibliotecuss.iideasperu.org/presupuestando/

En tercer lugar se eligió a ¡Salvemos las Huacas!, una plataforma web de mapeo ciudadano orientada a la defensa, conservación y protección del patrimonio arqueológico ante la amenaza del desborde urbano en nuestra ciudad.

The panel awarded first place to the #OTA group for the Quiero Ir! (I want to go!) project that, by means of a manually- or GPS-inputted starting point, mapped the (public transport) routes that would take the user to their selected destination. The application also offered information about the route (route number, starting point, final destination, e.t.c) as well as a reference photo of the vehicle.

The SEUSS team was given second place. Its presupuestando.pe application offers information in a dynamic way about the budgetry indicators of the regional and local governments, providing easy access to the information and encouraging citizen participation. (Budget at national level). The project can be seen here: http://bibliotecuss.iideasperu.org/presupuestando.

Third place was given to ¡Salvemos las Huacas! (We save the tombs), a web platform for a citizen map orientated towards the defence, conservation and protection of our archaeological heritage against the threat of  urban overflow in our city.

In Argentina the winning projects were: 1- Del boletin (The Bulletin), 2- Datos Universitarios (University Data) and 3- Qué Sabemos de? (What do we know about…). In Brazil the Onde Acontece? (Where does it happen) project is reported to have won; and in Uruguay the following projects won: 1- Gobierno transparente (Transparent Government), 2- Reporte de Mapas (Map Report), 3- Moña Azul (Blue Bow). Finally the #DAL organisers announced the regional level winners:

1. Brasil – Onde Acontece. Team: São Paulo Perl Mongers. Team Leader: Thaigo Rondon.

2. Chile – Escuela Popular. Team: Oleyna. Team leader: Oleh Burkay.

3. Uruguay – Moña Azul. Team: Moñita Azul. Team leader: Fernando Briano.

DAL also added that “The developers, designers, engineers, professionals from the most diverse areas, gave a lesson to the world. Boundaries do not exist when it comes to solving real problems for our towns, nationalities don't exist when it comes to trying to solve problems that bring all Latin Americans together.”

Reporte visual de accidentes de tránsito en Montevideo.

Visualization of traffic accidents in Montevideo. Photo by Desarrollando América Latina.

Some of the developers that took part in the competition published their thoughts on their blogs. For example, Uruguayan developer Francisco Castro comments about the project he collaborated on:

Estuve participando en un grupo que busca acceder a la gente de “a pie” la información del parlamento. Datos interesantes, como las asistencias, los proyectos que presenta cada parlamentario; tanto los gastos suntuosos, como los pedidos de informes que estos parlamentarios realizan a las diversas dependencias del estado; … Transparencia. Darle al público también la posibilidad de opinar al respecto de cada asunto, de que la gente pueda indicar qué temas le interesan, y así informarse cada vez que se presenten proyectos, notas, etc… al respecto.

I was participating in a group that was seeking to make parliamentary information accessible to everyday people. Interesting data, like attendance, the projects proposed by each member; from the lavish spending to the credit reports that these members of parliament carry out on the state bodies;… Transparency. Give the public, as well, the possibility to express an opinion about each issue, the possibility to suggest issues of interest, and thus be informed each time that these projects, notices, e.t.c are introduced.

Sylvia, from the blog El mundo frente al mar, is another Uruguayan developer that took part in the competition. Out of all the things that the experience has given her, she mentions:

  • Todas las pilas para aprender rápido y bien otros lenguajes como Java y Python. Yo sólo soy estudiante de UTU y mi intención al ir fue la de aprender y no la de ganar. Ahora, que voy a tener un premio entre manos, las ganas de superarme más allá del curso que hago son muy fuertes.
  • Darse cuenta que con la informática también se puede ayudar en problemas diarios y en temas sociales. Sólo es cuestión de pensarlo y encontrarle la vuelta.
  • All of the things needed to to learn a language well and quickly like Java and Python. I'm just a UTU student and my intention was only to learn, not to win. Now that I'm going to get my hands on a prize, I'm really looking forward to going beyond the course I'm studying.
  • Realising that IT can help in daily problems and social issues. It's just a case of thinking about it and finding the way.
  • Also, Fernando Briano, another Uruguayan, in his blog Picando Código talks about his experience in #DAL and he concludes:

    Me alegro de haber podido aportar mi granito de arena en algo mucho más grande que cada uno de los participantes, pero realizado con el trabajo colaborativo de todos.[…] Sabemos que estos proyectos, así como los proyectos de otros países, se segurián desarrollando. Próximamente habrán más hackatones de este estilo, donde espero ver más gente participando. Personalmente hoy estuve trabajando un poco en procesamiento de datos xls, ods y Google docs, y sé que Juan Manuel iba a mirar cosas de OCR para PDF y Fran estuvo mirando DJango (por influencia directa del evento). Sé que los demás equipos también piensan seguir el desarrollo, lo que marca el inicio de esta nueva etapa que comentaba. No hay que perder el impulso

    I'm glad to have been able to do my bit in something much bigger than each individual participant, but that was carried out with the collaborative effort of all. […]We know that these projects, and those of other countries, keep on developing. There will be more hackathons like this one soon, where I hope to see more people taking part. Today I have worked a little on the xls, ods and Google docs data processing and I know that Juan Manuel was going to see the OCR things for PDF and Fran was watching DJango (by direct influence of the event). I know all the other teams also intend to keep on developing, which marks the beginning of this new phase that I mentioned. We must not lose momentum.
    Exposición de uno de los equipos mexicanos. Foto de Desarrollando América Latina.

    Exhibition of one of the Mexican teams. Photo by Desarrollando América Latina.

    This competition has, in equal measures, served to encourage the idea of hackathons [en] and public hackers in the region and to organise the community of people from diverse disciplines with experience in the use and exploitation of open data bases.

    This might be a good starting point both to generate similar replicas or more ambitious activities from civil society organisations interested in these issues, as well as for the simple spread of the concept of open data, e-government and the social use of IT amongst the developers of the region and others who are interested. Hopefully these types of initiatives will become widespread throughout all Latin American countries.

    Post originally posted on Juan Arellano's personal blog.

    December 02 2011

    Slovakia: Visualising Business Registry Data with Vorsr.sk

    Vorsr.sk [sk] is a tool for visual exploration of Slovakia's business registry. It treats the information as one big social network, grabbing the newest data live from the current registry database and delivering up-to-date connections of searched for individuals. The business registry contains information about all Slovak people who own a business, own part of one or are board members.

    Following is an interview with Slovakian Michal Habala, who together with a colleague came up with the idea for Vorsr.sk in August 2008, using JUNG, an open-source Java project by a couple of students from the University of California.

    Sample data visualisation from Vorsr.sk

    Sample data visualisation from Vorsr.sk

    Global Voices (GV): How much time did it take to launch Vorsr.sk before it went live? What were people's first reactions?

    Michal Habala (MH): At the beginning we thought that it would be ready in a few weeks/months but when we saw the data quality in the business registry we decided to go deeper and implement data cleansing algorithms and other functionality. This and the fact that it is not a commercial project (it was always balanced between all our free time activities) meant that the beta version for public testing was released 18 months after we started. But I think it was worth it; the reactions are always very good, as we can present some results, which you would never be able to see in any other relevant project or tool.

    GV: How did the idea change from day one? What are your users saying and how are you adapting to their needs?

    MH: This tool is in never-ending development driven basically by our users. Every time we get an impulse from our users to add some functionality, we begin to analyze this request and try to make it happen.

    GV: What are your plans for the near and distant future?

    MH: The tool is evolving in time and now we are introducing a Czech version (beta version here) and probably in two months we are looking to introduce a Czechoslovak version (from both countries). This could be the first European project which provides information from joint business registries to the public (and it’s completely free).

    GV: What is/was your main obstacle while developing and running the project?

    MH: Probably poor data quality in the business registry. We tried to make this tool without downloading the data to our databases, so in Slovak it runs as an online wrapper of the business registry. This approach has its positives (like no problem with request limits and always up to date data) but recently we discovered that this approach has some limitations, which we want to overcome. This is mainly the data loading time and stability of the business registry, which is continuously getting worse. Even though we like the concept of using government services as data sources for our tool, we have to face the fact that these services have a long way to go before they can be used in such way.

    GV: Was there anyone angry at you after you launched this project?

    MH: I think that people still don’t get it what they can do with this tool. Most of our users just look at their own business and do not go deeper. Partly it’s our fault because we don’t pay much attention to the promotion of results yet. But we are going to change that and embed some introductory (tutorial) videos and results-showing videos in our home page. Then I can imagine that some business people would be annoyed that we used their case to present our tool. But in general I think there’s nothing to be worried about, it’s all public data already accessible through the public business registry.

    GV: What will be new in the beta version?

    MH: The beta version is completely new inside. There was some major object and internal structure redesign, which will improve stability, the speed of the applet and will allow us to easily integrate other countries and add other sources of information. Also some GUI [Graphical User Interface] redesign and new graph analyzing algorithms. So it will be quite new in the end, but we are talking about a wait of probably one year.

    GV: I find this tool currently hard to use - there is lots of Java, it's quite slow in my browser. Don’t you lose some of your audience because of these issues?

    MH: I know that Java is source consuming and therefore the whole tool is slower in browsers with large amounts of data loaded, but this tool was never meant to be used this way. It was designed to be a small applet for visualizing small graphs online loaded from the business registry. When we saw that big business cases are really big and you have to load very large graphs to see the context, we decided to make a real tool from it. The first step to overcome the speed issue was enabling the install of it as a desktop application, which runs faster. Another step is to release a new version with optimized algorithms (i.e. the beta version mentioned earlier). But at the end, it will never be a click-and-see component for everyone, it’s a tool and when a user wants to use it he/she has to accept its demands.

    GV: What are the promotional plans? Do media and journalists use it?

    MH: We don’t have information as to whether any media use it. I think that there are some media people among our users but that’s all. I have to say that we underestimated the value of promotion. We are mainly programmers but we have to face the fact that every project needs a promotion plan.

    GV: Is there any business person who wants to sponsor you?

    MH: This goes hand in hand with the question before I think. No promotion means no sponsor. On the other hand we are getting promo support from the Fair-play Alliance in Slovak Republic and now also from people of the Kohovolit.eu portal in the Czech Republic for which we are very thankful.

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview.

    November 11 2011

    Slovakia: Checking Politicians' Facts With Demagog.sk

    Demagog.sk is a Slovakian web project that aims to analyze politicians' claims based on facts and ensure they are correct and used in the right context.

    Inspiration for the initiative came from a Slovak press watch blog (spw.blog.sme.sk) [sk] on which there were occasional posts about the country's Sunday debates and the factually inaccurate numbers/arguments that people had used in them. Projects such as PolitiFact and FactCheck in the United States fulfil the same function, where people analyse political claims and rate them as true/untrue/misleading/ etc.

    Here, I spoke with Matej Hruska, the student founder of Demagog.sk.

    Demagog.sk

    Demagog.sk

    Global Voices (GV): How much time did it take to launch the project before it went live? What were people's first reactions?

    Matej Hruska (MH): We had a three months period of testing of what we would be capable of in terms of how much time is needed to analyse one television debate etc. We used the WordPress platform for the site, so to set it up was not very time consuming. First reactions were (and still are, when someone new comes to the site) that it is great to have someone who watches those political ramblings every Sunday. We launched the site couple of months before the elections so the attention was kind of logical.

    GV: Has the idea changed since the start? What are your users saying and how are you adapting to their needs?

    (MH): The idea is still the same, we use the same methodology, but we have upgraded the website and now we use a CMS made specifically for our needs (with statistics for every politician, etc).

    Usually our users dont say much, or at least they don't say anything to us. The basic feedback we get is when someone is not satisfied with our analysis or conclusion.

    GV: What are your plans for near and further future?

    (MH): The plan is to cover debates on public radio as well, and to monitor politicians' claims continually during the week, e.g. at major press conferences, events etc. Another goal is to spread the concept to other countries.

    GV: What is/was your main obstacle while developing and running your project?

    (MH): As with any similar project, the main obstacle is lack of time and money. In the beginning we ran the whole thing as a voluntary project in our free time; since September [2011] we have been getting some funding and other volunteers from a Slovak NGO, SGI. But we still have to find a way how to make the whole thing sustainable.

    GV: How do you attract more people to interact?

    (MH): The basic idea is that we want people to dispute our conclusion (sort of “crowdsourcing” the fact checking) - we do not think we are absolutely right in every case. However, people often react in an angry way, which rules out any rational discussion. Given that our main field is to fact check statements, we dont have any other special feature which would give people more space to get engaged.

    GV: Have politicians ever contacted you to “straighten something out”? Or do you contact them?

    (MH): Sometimes we try to contact them - in cases when they are talking about some report or governmental analysis which is not (yet) online - but they usually do not react.

    In a few cases, some of them have contacted us, by commenting under the articles or by email, to add something to their claims, or to prove their opponent had been wrong. We analyse such additional information and if it makes some sense, we add them to the original conclusion, with the byline that they are from such and such person.

    GV: How do you collect materials? Do you work as a media monitoring service or do you cooperate with one?

    (MH): We have transcripts of debates from Newton Media (a media analysis firm); any other material we look up on Google. That is our main source and tool.

    GV: How do you promote your analysis? Do you paste links to some comments below articles on mainstream media?

    (MH): We have several opportunities to publish our findings (in fact, too many at the current time, and we don't have time to use them all) in the national media or online. The thing is that we are the first one who are doing something like this here [in Slovakia], so we have been able to attract some media attention.

    We also do a kind of “realtime fact check”- we analyse some of the claims during the debates on Sunday using the coveritlive platform. Two slovak news server use the embed code of the coveritlive on their websites.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer above questions. Good luck.

    Reposted byRK RK

    October 24 2011

    Egypt: Catch the Former Regime Remnants

    This post is part of our special coverage of Egypt Protests 2011.

    Last April, an Egyptian court ordered the dissolution of the political organization that had ruled the nation for decades, the National Democratic Party (NDP). At the time, the verdict was considered by many, including the Egyptian blogger, Zeinobia, as one of the achievements of the revolution, and a punishment for those who contaminated the political life in Egypt during Mubarak's era.

    She wrote:

    This long waited verdict is the best slap on the arrogance of the NDP members “former members to be accurate” who do not want to give up and admit the crimes they have committed against this great nation.

    Since then the word “Felool” [ar], which translates to the “remnants of the former regime”, has become the newest addition to the daily vocabulary of Egyptians. Mohammad Salah described the meaning of the word in more detail:

    Between seriousness and comedy, the word “remnants” has become the most frequently used word within Egyptian circles after the Revolution. The remnants are the defeated, or the leftovers of the former regime: whether those who worked within the executive apparatus and assumed high-ranking government positions; prominent figures of the dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP); MPs in the People’s Assembly and Shura Council who would gain their seats through fraud; or people affiliated with the Mubarak regime even if they did not work in the government or engaged in politics directly – such as businessmen, celebrities, artists, football players and people the regime would use to promote itself or to justify certain behavior, allow certain decisions to pass and promote the issue of Mubarak’s son inheriting the presidency!

    And while the Egyptians are getting themselves ready for the parliamentary elections in November, the remnants of Mubarak regime became a serious issue to many of them. Some former members of the NDP launched new political parties, and some others will run independently. Even when it comes to other established parties, some of them decided to rely on the popularity of some ex-NDP members to gain more seats in parliament.

    Azza Sedky wrote how Al-Wafd - one of the oldest Egyptian parties - is accused of integrating ex-members of the National Democratic Party into its lists.

    She explained:

    However, even the Wafd seems to be having issues with its lists, as certain members insist on running in the parliamentary polls, while the party's high commission thinks otherwise. Mostafa El-Gendy, who recently resigned from the party, was among those who censured the Wafd for allegedly integrating ex-members of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) into its lists.

    Also Ramy Mahrous tweeted:

    @RamyMahrous: Ayman @ayman_shweky claims some Parliament candidates belong to “Alwast” Party are ex-NDP #Matrouh #Egypt #Parliament #Elections

    Issues like this resulted in many arguments either within the parties or between different parties within political blocs, and Bassem Sabry reported one of those example in his blog:

    Reasons for the split include ex-NDP members running with the Egyptian Bloc, and also (of course) the allocation of seats within the Bloc.

    A list of ndp spin-off parties, tweeted by maram adel

    One of the proposed solutions was a law that bans members of the former Egyptian ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections. However, this caused much controversy as some political forces view it as necessary for a real democracy in Egypt, while others have criticized it for setting a precedent of political isolation.

    Such a law is still being studied by the Higher Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), and it is hard to wait for it with the elections around the corner, so some revolutionary youth came out with another solution. They created a new platform under the name Emsek-flol (Catch the former regime remnants) to list all those former NDP members and the electoral districts they are going to run in. Zeinobia blogged about the website here:

    Just like Catch a thief Egyptian political groups and activists including April 6th Youth , Revolution Youth coalition and The Egyptian National Council “Mamdouh Hamza” have launched a great website that called : Esmeklflol.com
    This fantastic website includes all the names of ex-NDP leaders and important members as well former NDP members of the parliament , local councils and NDP’s headquarters in all our governorates. It is huge fantastic work. You can find names based on governorates with brief details about their positions in the NDP.
    The most interesting section is the cadres of the NDP , its leaders. That list includes very powerful businessmen who are untouched up till now. The website includes the names of the parties made by the NDP remnants, of course they are more than 8 now.

    This post is part of our special coverage of Egypt Protests 2011.

    October 07 2011

    Ada Lovelace Day: Inspirational Women in Action

    Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was an English female writer and mathematician, widely held to have been the first computer programmer.

    Our tribute for Ada Lovelace Day goes to women who are constantly working to make our world a more transparent and fair place; brave social leaders denouncing corruption while providing tools and directing campaigns who are increasing our awareness and uniting us to act for change.

    'One Laptop Per Child' project. Image by Flickr user venkylinux (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

    'One Laptop Per Child' project. Image by Flickr user venkylinux (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

    As we have done in the past, this year we are including smart women in the intersection between technology and social change who are a central presence in projects promoting a more accountable and transparent society.

    Our tributes

    Fernanda Viegas (@viegasf) is on the list of the top 100 more influential Brazilians. She is a computational designer whose work focuses on the social, collaborative, and artistic aspects of information visualization.

    Viegas is a co-leader, with Martin Wattenberg, of Google's ‘Big Picture' data visualization group in Cambridge, MA. She is also one of the great minds behind public visualization platform Many Eyes, an experiment in open, public data visualization and analysis. In this video you can see her talk in TedX Sao Paulo:

    Hok Kakada from Cambodia is creating a software program that will help Cambodian hospitals store data more accurately, allowing for better treatment. All her work is based on Open Source software. She challenged the difficulties girls face in her country and obtained a master degree in Japan.

    Linda Kamau (@lkamau) is one of the coders behind the well known Ushahidi initiative. She is a software developer based in Kenya with a degree in Business Information Technology. Kamau develops both web and mobile applications and is contributing to change across continents, from election monitoring to corruption mapping.

    Brenda Burell is the technical mind behind the Freedom Fone Project, a voice database where users can access news and public-interest information via land, mobile or Internet phones. Previously she directed the Kubatana initiative in Zimbabwe.

    Camila Bustamante (@cabude), from Peru, is working on the design front, on design strategies for participatory processes mainly related to urban mobility, public space and new media. In 2010 Camila iniciated Todos somos dateros (”We are all data providers”), a participatory mechanism for sustainable urban mobility in Lima.

    Working from the UK-based Open Knowledge Foundation, Kat Braybrooke @kat_braybrooke is a front-end web developer and Lucy Chambers (@lucyfedia) is in the process of learning how to code. They are involved in the organization of the world's biggest open government event, the Open Government Data Camp in Warsaw.

    Kristin Antin (@kjantin) from the United States is participating in the design and organization of New Tactics in Human Rights, a technical on-line platform providing resources to human rights advocates that offer innovative tactical solutions for confronting specific local challenges, using technology.

    Stephanie Hankey is the co-founder of Tactical Technology Collective, a small non-governmental organization dedicated to advance the skills, tools and techniques of rights advocates, empowering them to use information and communications as a critical asset in helping marginalised communities understand and effect progressive social, environmental and political change.

    Daniela Silva (@danielabsilva) from Brazil is the founder of Sfera Brazil and Transparencia Hacker a community of over 800 designers, developers, coders and even government officers developing huge projects together to promote transparency and accountability.

    These are some examples of brilliant women who are not afraid of the mouse, the screen, or the complexities of coding. They are inspiring others by doing amazing projects, all of them contributing to social change.

    If you have an example in mind today, we invite you to write about them, to describe the amazing women working in technology you know; women who are an example and inspiration for girls in the generations to come as Ada Lovelace, more than hundred years ago, was for many others. Share your stories and inspire others!

    September 21 2011

    Global: Online Dialogue on Technology for Transparency

    The Technology for Transparency Initiative, together with New Tactics in Human Rights, invites you to join an online dialogue on ‘Using Technology to Promote Transparency', starting today.

    There has been an expanding and increasingly global movement of technology and digital media projects aimed at promoting government transparency, accountability, and public participation in political processes. After documenting dozens of cases around the world, the Technology for Transparency Network, a project of Rising Voices, documented these transparency projects to gain a better understanding of their current impact, obstacles, and future potential. Now it is time to start the conversation, with the help of the wonderful platform ‘New Tactics for Human Rights'.

    Image by whiteafrican on Flickr (under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license).

    Image by whiteafrican on Flickr (under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license).

    This week we are inviting 11 experts from all over the world, from different projects promoting openness, collaboration and transparency, to answer your questions, comment on interesting topics and discuss the future of technology in promoting transparency.

    Join Elizabeth Wolf from Ciudadano Inteligente (Smart Citizen), Chile; Susannah Vila and Jorge Soto from Citivox, Mexico; Mike Linksvayer from Creative Commons; Jonathan Gray from Open Knowledge Foundation, UK; Diego Casaes from Eleitor 2010, Brazil; Camila Bustamante from Dateros, Peru; Ulrich Muller from Germany; Maya Indira Ganesh from Tactical Technology Collective; John (Kipp) Kipchumbah of InfoNet, Kenya; Amr Gharbeia, Technology and Freedoms Programme Officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; and Mendi Njonjo, Fund Manager for the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative in Kenya.

    The dialogue is an opportunity to share these case studies and tools with the New Tactics online community, learn from the experiences of practitioners implementing these projects, and discuss new ideas, challenges, risks and opportunities. Join us online from September 21 to share your stories, ideas and resources.

    May 22 2011

    Technology for Transparency: Final Report

    The Technology for Transparency Network is proud to announce the release of its final report, Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability.

    The report is being published by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (@TAInitiative) along with a over a dozen other reports on the global transparency movement. The reports focus on three key research areas: Impact and Learning, New Technologies, and Policy Innovations.

    Many thanks go to the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for supporting our work, to our amazing team of researchers, and to David Sasaki, who launched and directed the initial phase of the Technology for Transparency Network, which laid the groundwork for this report.

    Get the report

    Executive Summary

    This report contains the key findings from having reviewed more than 100 projects and having interviewed dozens of practitioners in Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Sub-Saharan Africa who use new technologies as a means to increase transparency and accountability. This summary helps to ‘take the pulse‘ of the Technology for Transparency and Accountability movement and suggests both exciting possibilities for scaling impact as well as important caveats and challenges.

    For practitioners in the transparency and accountability space, it is useful to frame the potential for leveraging technology towards transparency and accountability initiatives in at least four ways:

    • Bringing projects and interventions to scale.
    • Bringing citizens closer to the policymaking process through new and improved channels of participation as well as citizen monitoring of government.
    • Identifying policy priorities and service delivery challenges through ‘data mashing‘ and other visualisation and data manipulation techniques of both government and private datasets.
    • Improving the efficiency of civil society organisations working in the transparency and accountability space through adoption of best practice technology platforms.

    Additional Findings

    The majority of projects we studied focus on the executive or legislative branches of government.  A smaller number of projects focus on the judicial branch, the media, the private sector, and donors.

    Nearly half of the projects focus on monitoring elections.  While many of these use Ushahidi, some have developed their own approaches, including aggregating elections news from multiple sources on a single site and tracking official election monitors’ reports on Google Maps.

    Projects in multiple regions focus on transparency in the legislature, often tracking legislative bills and posting profiles for each representative that include biographies and voting records. Some also include profiles of political parties or records of legislative spending.

    Data visualization and navigation tools are a key feature in more than half of the projects we documented, as are diverse forms of data collection from citizens. Approximately one third of the projects use mobile phones in some way, most commonly by allowing citizens to submit or receive information via text messages.

    What's next?

    The Technology for Transparency Network website will remain open as a place where we can share projects, tools, and ideas, as a meeting point for successful initiatives and those who want to learn from the work others have done. You can subscribe to our mailing list, read or contribute with specialized articles on Global Voices Online, and follow us on Twitter (@techtransparent) and Facebook. This field is just beginning to emerge, and we look forward to helping nurture global efforts through collaboration and communication across borders.

    February 28 2011

    Argentina: Hackathons and budget transparency in Bahía Blanca

    Written by Renata Avila

    Manuel Aristarian

    Manuel Aristarian

    As we have witnessed in the last month, there are moments in civic life that drive citizens to change and challenge institutions, to create solutions and to express their concerns about things that matter. In a short interview with Renata Avila for the Technology for Transparency Network, Manuel Aristarian, an Argentinian leading several different initiatives, shared his views on data and the tools to turn data into a valuable asset for citizens, to claim their rights and demand transparency. He is the man behind Gasto Público Bahiense in Bahía Blanca and GarageLab.

    When Manuel Aristaran (@manuelaristaran) heard the news about controversial contracts by the local government in the Argentinian city of Bahía Blanca, he explored its website and noticed that expenses by the municipality were simply not accessible: they were published in a long list and without tools to explore the data, and the format did not offer an efficient and effective way to watch the expenses. He decided to solve that problem and take transparency in Bahía Blanca to the next level, a more participatory one.

    RA: Why did you start your project?

    MA: I've always been interested in public policies and the real impact of data on how they're designed. After the news of some controversial purchases made by the government of Bahía Blanca broke out, I learned that its website contains information about some of the public contracts and purchases. Those documents were published as a long list, and the municipality's site doesn't provide any additional tools to explore that information. I thought that scraping, structuring and building a simple site to display that information (that is, transforming data into knowledge) might be a nice weekend project. After few weekends, I released Gasto Público Bahiense.

    RA: Why did you get involved? What is your inspiration to dedicate your weekends to Gasto Público Bahiense?

    MA: I think that involvement in public affairs is impossible if we don't understand how the government works. In other words, you can't commit to something you don't understand. Making government data available in a simple, concise and clear way is a step in the direction of “educating” people about their actions of their government.

    RA: How are things changing after the release of your idea? Any success stories?

    MA: There's been some reaction from inside the government: the city's legislative body declared the site of ‘municipal interest'. The project also succeeded in educating some government officials on the importance of publishing  information in open and standard formats.

    RA: Can you describe the obstacles and barriers you overcome to create your project?

    MA: The lack of good government data and the lack of a solid legal framework that guarantees that they won't stop publishing the information just because. In Argentina, the OpenData grassroots movement is just starting. Together with other transparency NGOs, we're trying to think of ways of raising awareness about the importance of making governments more transparent and accountable. That, I hope, will lead to better policies of transparency and information.

    RA: As a concerned citizen, do you want other local governments to do the same? Are you sharing your knowledge and expertise with others? Tell me more about “the power of shared code”.

    MA: During an Open Data Hackathon, the code that powers Gasto Público Bahiense was used to display purchase data from other local governments in Argentina.  Anyone can grab the code and adapt it. It just had to write the code that extracts the data from those cities' websites.

    RA: Your idea has inspired others to explore the potential of open data, right? How are people using your tool?

    MA: Yes, different actors have used my project in many ways, for example hyperlocal news outlets used the website as source, businesses that sell to the local government use the site to check on their competitors, and when government purchases are available, consumers can access a good reference to compare prices.

    It is well known that corruption in Argentina is widespread and hinders the political system and the economic growth, in spite of its highly educated citizens. However, “social entrepreneurs” like Manuel use their skills to foster change and invite others to copy the idea and do the same, everywhere.

    November 30 2010

    Cable Gate: Lessons on tech for transparency

    By Renata Avila

    Cable Gate is everywhere. You can read about it in virtually any digital or print newspaper around the world; you can see it through the links shared on social media sites; you can follow the tag #cablegate on Twitter; you can browse dozens of blogs; you can hear about it on the radio. Wikileaks' release of over 250,000 United States embassy cables is one of the hottest subjects in media and government right now: technology reduced the gap between citizens and complex government information, and people are actively discussing the release throughout the world.

    As Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens point out in their article “Ten Theses about Wikileaks,” the organization's release of sensitive government information used technology to capture the attention of millions:

    Wikileaks manages to capture that attention by way of spectacular information hacks where other parties, especially civil society groups and human rights organizations, are desperately struggling to get their message across. Wikileaks genially puts to use the ‘escape velocity’ of IT — using IT to leave IT behind and irrupt into the realm of real-world politics.

    But which tools are they using to capture and keep the attention of people and media, and ultimately change the government opaqueness they fight? More importantly, how can citizens collaborate in this innovative, real-time, diplomacy-focused call for accountability?

    Traditional media partners

    Wikileaks gave five major media outlets — the The Guardian, Le Monde [fr], El País, Der Spiegel, and New York Times — preliminary access to the cables. By combining a digital release with publication by traditional media, Wikileaks — and other online transparency organizations — are able to reach a broader audience and spread information in different formats and vehicles. Wikileaks' constant updates on Twitter even made it to the U.S. Department of State press conference and several international media organizations who made references to them.

    Visualization tools

    The majority of Wikileaks' media partners and the Cablegate site are using easy-to-understand graphics to communicate the data in a more comprehensive way. Information Aesthetics has a roundup of the different visualization techniques. Fast Company has taken a slightly different approach, constructing a Wordle based on the cables.

    Cable Gate Wordle

    Cable Gate Wordle, via Fast Company

    Crowdsourcing

    Cable Gate created a way where any user anywhere around the world can easily browse and locate any cable of interest for them and draw their own conclusions. Wikileaks is inviting users to search for events that happened in their own countries. They can, for example, check key dates of relevant events to see if they can find any references in any cable, then share their analyses and findings using Web 2.0 tools. This is essentially crowdsourced accountability by anyone, anywhere in the world. Other organizations are taking advantage of this, encouraging citizens to “get their hands dirty” and dig through the cables for relevant information: the National Security Archive blog “Unredacted” published a guide on how to read Department of State documents and a list of commonly used acronyms in the cables.

    Wikileaks is encouraging citizens to share their findings:

    Pick out interesting events and tell others about them. Use twitter, reddit, mail whatever suits your audience best. For twitter or other social networking services please use the #cablegate or unique reference ID (e.g. #66BUENOSAIRES2481) as hash tags.

    Perhaps we are witnessing a change of era, where the voices of citizens will replace the whispering of secrets behind close doors and foreign relations will switch to a more open diplomacy. Perhaps not. Regardless, after this release the world will have a new model to follow.

    November 16 2010

    Collaboration against Corruption: Upcoming Events

    By Renata Avila

    "Openness and Collaboration" by PSD under an Attribution Creative Commons License  version 3.0 Unported

    "Openness and Collaboration" by PSD under an Attribution Creative Commons License version 3.0 Unported

    Networked citizens around the world have today a unique opportunity to create a global front against corruption by embracing and adopting free culture freedoms. Applying free culture principles in the fight against corruption, increases its effectiveness and enables better informed policies and a coordinated effort across national boundaries and areas of interests.

    As the recent 14th International Conference Against Corruption in Thailand stated, to foster the transparency agenda it is necessary to restore people’s trust and rebuild the credibility of institutions. Those who fight against corruption should go beyond expressions of political will to concrete action. Also, it is crucial to engage youth, as pointed out by Bunga Manggiasih, one of the international young journalists who collaborated to cover the event. One of the best bridges to connect and engage youth in the use — and the invention — of technology to fight corruption is to organize efforts to connect different communities and take action. Several of these events are taking place this week:

    Open Gov Data Camp in London

    Open Gov Data Catalogues available to any UK citizen offer an unprecedented opportunity to achieve more open, accountable, responsive and efficient approach against corruption and the culture of secrecy that prevailed in the past. OpenGov Data Camp will take place November 18-19, 2010, with representatives from different countries attending and holding discussions around around key legal, technical, and policy issues related to opening up government information. The camp will also offer a space for for developers and hackers to make things, learning from each other and from their mistakes.  You will be able to follow on Twitter (#ogdcamp) and via live notes/discussions on the OKF Etherpad site.

    Personal Democracy Forum Latin America in Chile

    As you can see in on the Technology for Transparency Network map, Latin America is one of the most vibrant regions in the World, where initiatives to engage citizens, promote transparency and fight corruption are flourishing and connecting their numerous digital natives, creating a bridge for them to better understand how their governments work, why transparent elections and the funding behind political parties matter, and why they should care about their parliaments, among other issues. On November 18 -19, 2010, @PDFLatAm will take place in Santiago, Chile. Latin American leaders and activists will share the new developments in the region and will learn from peers at projects based in the US, Africa and Europe, including Rising Voices Director David Sasaki and Ushahidi co-founder Patrick Meier. A group of Global Voices authors and translators will be there and will share their event insights with you. The Technology for Transparency Network will also be live-tweeting in Spanish during the event at @transparentech.

    Polska Transparency Camp in Poland

    Citizens who “do instead of talk” are at the core of any efficient and sustainable initiative involving technology and actions against corruption. Following such principles and engaging leaders from different countries to share their experiences, 150 people with different backgrounds will attend Polska Transparency Camp in Warsaw, Poland. Citizens together with a variety of speakers from different countries and backgrounds, connected by the Internet, will work together to connect different sectors, brainstorm ideas, and define the path to a more transparent and accountable society in Poland. You can watch the live event online and follow Technology for Transparency researcher Sylwia Presley on Twitter at @presleysylwia for updates.

    Open Data Day Hackathon

    The global Open Data Day Hackathon offers a unique opportunity to gather people around the world to act for transparency by developing applications using the open public data available in their country. The idea is to invite developers, designers, librarians, statisticians, and citizens of all kinds to spend one day working together. The event will take place on December 4, 2010, and it's not to late to join the global effort in your community.

    All of these events offer ways for citizens to get involved in technology-based efforts to promote transparency and accountability, encouraging more active, engaged, effective digital activism against corruption. If you're able to get involved, we encourage you to do so — even though the Technology for Transparency Network operates mostly online, face to face contact with communities interested in a more open and transparent world is often crucial to making these efforts successful.

    November 11 2010

    Technology for Transparency: Five New Cases, With More to Come!

    By Rebekah Heacock

    The Technology for Transparency Network is thrilled to announce the start of the publication of our second phase of research. Beginning with five cases — Accountability Initiative in India, Amatora mu mahoro in Burundi, Democrator.ru in Russia, Excelências in Brazil, and Mam Prawo Wiedzieć in Poland — we will be posting approximately 30 new cases over the coming weeks.

    We're also excited to announce a new feature on the Technology for Transparency site: over the summer, we've revised the way we categorize our case studies to make exploring the site and browsing the interviews more engaging. The projects we interviewed are complex and multifacted: for example, Dinero y Política (Money and Politics) in Argentina focuses on campaign finance; however, because of the type of technological tools it uses and its approach to financial data, it could also be considered an example of budget monitoring.

    Our new categorization system lets visitors to the site explore the case studies through four different lenses:

    1. The actor(s) whose actions the projects target (for example, the legislative branch of government).
    2. The function(s) said actors perform (for example, elections, budgets, or government service delivery).
    3. The type of technology tools they use (for example, mobile tools or data collection tools).
    4. The project's scale (national, municipal, etc.).

    The “Quick Look” section at the top of each case study lists the categories for that case — have fun clicking around to see what other projects fall into those categories!

    The Quick Look feature at the top of each case study lets you browse our case studies by multiple categories.

    We welcome your feedback on these cases, and the cases we'll be publishing throughout the month. Please feel free to leave comments on individual interviews, to message us on Twitter (in @techtransparent in English; @transparentech in Spanish/Portuguese), or to drop us a line on our Facebook page. We look forward to hearing from you!

    Next week: new cases from India, Russia, the Philippines, and East Africa!

    Technology for Transparency: Government Accountability in India

    By Renata Avila

    Corruption is a global threat. It affects developed and developing countries, the private and public sectors, and nonprofit and charitable organizations. The Transparency International 2010 annual report recently pointed out that governments need to integrate anti-corruption measures in all spheres to fight corruption. It is evident that the world needs more than ever before a holistic approach to fight corruption, including battling its the causes, like poverty and weak governance.

    As the Technology for Transparency Network has mapped different transparency projects around the world, we have been excited to discover how enthusiasm for a more ethical and transparent society is flourishing everywhere, both with the increase use of technologies and with a growing awareness that corruption should not be tolerated by citizens.

    A protagonist of these changes is India, the largest, most diverse democracy in the world. India is a pioneer in open government and open access strategies with an exponentially increasing innovation in technologies. It is not a coincidence that the country that is producing the cheapest laptop in the world is also partnering with other countries such as the United States to foster open government initiatives:

    India is at the vanguard of figuring out how to exploit technology and innovation on behalf of democratic accountability. U.S.-based groups, as well as those throughout the developed and developing world, could learn an enormous amount from these efforts. And India may well become a kind of “city on the hill” that other countries look to for lessons on not only how to pull millions of people out of poverty, but also on how to strengthen democratic accountability.
    US Open Government Blog

    Important to mention is that India is a federated state with a diversity of languages and realities. That is why many of the initiatives are focused on local transparency and how to hold local authorities accountable, such as the Accountability Initiative, the first case of our second round of global case studies. Project Director Yamini Aiyar shares the project's mission to improve public service delivery:

    Our big vision is to promote an informed and accountable public delivery system. We do this in two ways. For such a system to exist, the government system has to exist in a form that is transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs, and citizens must be empowered with information so they can place their demands and push for greater accountability. All our work is to pull these two threads together. PAISA and Expenditure Track are examples of that. The second aspect of our work is to generate debate on the accountability issue.

    Visit the Technology for Transparency website to explore other technology for transparency projects from India.

    October 19 2010

    Benin: Text Messages to Help Protect Children Against Violence: Lessons Learned

    By Lova Rakotomalala

    The Violence Against Children (VAC) project is an initiative co-implemented by PLAN and Save the Children in West Africa and takes place over 4 years (2008-2011) in seven countries: Togo, Ghana, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia. The VAC project trains and engages children and youth themselves as advocates and agents of change to end violence, together with adult community allies. A comprehensive UN report proposes recommendations for action to prevent and respond to violence against children around the world. Earlier this year, the project explored the idea of setting up a text message based system that will collect and map out reports of violence against children in communities in Benin and Togo.

    The managers of the VAC project sent the following statistics about violence against children in Benin: according to a study conducted by the Benin Ministry of Family in 2007 (Etude nationale sur la Traite des enfants réalisée par le Ministère de la Famille en 2007) [fr]:

    Le nombre d’enfants victimes de traite résidant sur le territoire béninois au moment de l’enquête a été estimé à 40317, soit 2% de la population béninoise résidant âgée de 6-17 ans dont près de 86% sont les filles.

    It was estimated that at the time of the study, 40,317 children living in Benin were exploited, i.e 2% of the population between the age of 6 and 17 and of those 86% were young girls

    Here is a video overview of the VAC Project there:

    The following is our conversation with Linda Raftree, social media and new technology advisor for Plan West Africa Region and ICT4D Technical Advisor for Plan USA who was closely involved with implementing the text messages-based technological support for the VAC project in Benin. She wrote extensively about fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children in Benin, the solutions that ICT could potentially provide in that context and the challenges that they faced. We discussed the implementation, the strengths and weaknesses of the technology portion of the project and the lessons learned in order to provide better protection for children.

    Team member Henry explains the workflow of SMS reporting during the workshop*

    Interview:


    Technology for Transparency Network (TTN): Tell us a little bit about the project, the genesis of the idea for a text message-based reporting system.
    Linda Raftree (LR): The project is managed by my colleague who works in the West Africa regional office and I’m supporting with the ICT integration. It started off really as a youth project funded by our office in Finland and an effort to break down the UN recommendations from the Violence against Children (VAC) study into a more mainstream language. The idea was to make specific areas of the study more palatable to the general population. The original VAC study was conducted over about 3 years in consultation with hundreds of children, and the goal of the broader VAC project is to increase awareness amongst children and adults, get them to learn about the effects of violence and how to prevent it and to share the knowledge with their peers.
    We (Plan) organized a conference in Kenya on social change through new media in December 2008, where my colleague Anastasie Koudoh in Dakar heard of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. She started wondering whether such a system could be set up to track violence via cell phone messages. We knew from the VAC study that many incidents of violence are not reported for various reasons and decided to see if we could remedy that. We discussed internally with colleagues from our Dakar and our Finnish office and we had a lot of questions about implementation, privacy and management of the platform , etc. In January, I was lucky enough to meet for a day with Josh Nesbit and James Bon Tempo at our office in Washington DC and we discussed and sorted out some basics about implementation, data collection and privacy. We got our Ushahidi instance set up with help from our colleague Mika at the Finnish office and the folks at Ushahidi. Then I went to Benin and supported Anastasie and the staff there to conduct workshops with the children in the community, the staff, the child protection services and the Ministry of Family, consulted with them and went through the whole process of how SMS reporting might be set up. We asked whether they thought this new system would help, the type of information that they thought we might want to collect and any additional risks to people reporting that we might not have thought of. Basically making sure that everyone's input was fully integrated into the system.
    TTN: What type of violence is more prominent in Benin and how would the project impact on the incidents?
    LR: The Ministry of Family generously sent the latest statistics. Besides the national numbers mentioned earlier, the study reports that in 2008, about 598,521 children (31%) are forced to work in illegal conditions and that 24% are performing dangerous work activities. Gender-based violence is also still very important. 88% of girls reported having experienced physical abuse and 87% were verbally abused; 7.2% were sequestered at least once; 2.8% had undergone female genital cutting (FGC) and 1.4% of girls between the age of 2 to 14 had been raped.
    Evidently, one must take into account that definitions of corporal punishment and verbal abuse can be culturally different. There is also violence at school where corporal punishment is still a commonly utilized educational method. 55% of students report having experienced corporal punishment either inside or outside the school.
    So we really put the emphasis on having the support of the community when raising awareness and addressing social change around this issue. We would not order people around but we would explain why this is not the best way, and provide alternative ways with the backing of the community. It can be difficult at times if it is culturally ingrained.

    Partcipants looking at the VAC project Ushahidi platform*

    TTN: Have you done an evaluation of the impact of the project so far, and are alternatives to the SMS reporting system (e.g. voice reporting) being considered?
    LR: Colleagues are planning a check-in the first week of November with our regional specialist on child protection. They’ll be looking at achievements and challenges in the areas of: technology (is it working? If not, why? What do we need to adjust); human resources and local capacities for managing the system; partnership and the relationship with the local and national government in terms of their ability and interest to take on and manage the system; and response – what is the current capacity to respond? How can this be improved? They’ll also do a more detailed mapping out of all the different potential child protection actors in the 2 communities, including health workers, schools, and traditional authorities, in order to see how we can best ensure the system is integrated with existing community structures and see how this sort of integration can improve local capacities to respond to reports of violence. We’ll build a forward looking plan based on this assessment of the project.
    So far, the staff have stated that they are satisfied with the set-up of the project as it is now, but they know that there are a lot more reports that could be coming in. They only have received 13 reports via SMS since the start of the project, but it's difficult to assess why those potentials reports are not coming in: whether it is the medium (text messages) or other factors independent of the new system in place. During the technology assessment, we’ll look at what we can do from that side, for example, potentially integrating voice in addition to SMS and adding an improved way to track verification and follow up of reported cases.
    One could argue that the project already allowed for more reports that would not have been reported if the new system were not in place. Therefore, even if we are still missing many unreported cases, we are getting a few more, and that's progress. In my opinion, it is a good start if it just gets people to think differently and look at the issue differently. Also we might not see the difference just in SMS reporting, but in reporting overall. That would then allow us to evaluate what other channels we could consider for reporting and which ones would be the most effective.
    At the end of the day, though, reporting is not the biggest bottleneck—the biggest bottleneck is usually the response. Suppose we had 500 reports that came in by SMS, there would not be the capacity to respond to them. So slow growth may actually be beneficial to the project. Utilizing the system to advocate for more capacity for child services is also one aspect of the project that we look into very closely. We don't want to set up a reporting mechanism that would not be able to deliver an adequate response mechanism.
    TTN: How does the response mechanism work? Who manages the reports and the responses ?
    LR: We are working with the Centre de Protection Social (CPS) and they ultimately report to the Ministry of the Family and have the responsibility to follow up on any type of child abuse. Benin has a government agency and clear laws against child abuse. At the workshop, we try to gather all the local agents that have some type of responsibility who can respond in case of child abuse (social agents but also police and community leaders). So when we receive reports from any victims or witnesses, a child protection officer at our district office receives the report through FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi and makes a phone call to the point person in that area (a CPS agent or a police officer). Once we get the ‘alerts’ system functioning in Ushahidi, this can be automated. At that point, the report is officially filed into the governmental system.

    TTN: Could you give a broad estimate of the cost of the project?

    LR: Anastasie says that the training in Benin cost around $7,500, plus the purchase of phone/modem for the FrontLineSMS platform. We used an existing computer. That's just the simple part of the project though, and doesn't include the staff time, the broader project activities and work with the youth before/after the training, and the costs of follow up that are ongoing.

    TTN: Do you think the Ushahidi platform would benefit from being translated into the local language like Yoruba ?
    LR: Actually, the mapping portion of Ushahidi is not useful for the local communities. Very few of them have access to internet so the Ushahidi platform is mostly utilized by the staff and the agency, who would know the local languages, French and some English. So the SMS reports can be received in any language and the administrators would translate them into French. The web interface and the map are more of an advocacy tool than a reporting system. For example, we can share the map with community leaders, local authorities, school official and the various ministries as we have more information coming in and discuss the issue with them and look for solutions. We also have a privacy issue, so we are considering making it a private page or a password-protected page because I am not convinced that it has any utility at this point for someone working outside the child protection system. That would also offer some additional protection to the victims.
    TTN: Has the government approached you about downloading the data collected so far?
    LR: That's a good question. I am not sure if the data has been downloaded by the government yet. What we wanted to be careful about is involving the higher level of the government in the early phases. We wanted to work with the local authorities—with the approval of the national government, of course. We wanted to optimize the system to the point where it is easy to understand and flawless, and then advocate for it to be adopted at higher levels. We would not want to present a system that is only half-way ready and risk having it rejected.
    TTN: Since it is really focused on the community, how did you approach publicizing the number to which text reports should be sent?
    LR: We are working on a communication strategy and outreach. We need to not only determine the best way to advertise the number, but also take care of educating the community about the importance of awareness and how to report abuse correctly. We need them to send complete information in the text messages, otherwise we cannot help. There are also some new plug-ins in FrontlineSMS that can help with better data collection. We are also looking into possibly adding a voice feature to see if more reports would come in.
    TTN: Are there any additional lessons learned or remarks that you would like to add?
    LR: It is interesting to compare this project, where a structure is in place for child protection, with other places. For instance, we thought about implementing a similar project in a neighboring country, but the government there is basically not interested. So the complexity there is: how does one implement a child protection service in a more fragile state? Would we be able to work with a community-based protection group and do without the presence of an established structure? In my opinion, it's becoming increasingly important not only for projects like ours, but any Ushahidi deployment or SMS reporting in general, to think beyond data collection and address the response mechanism when there is no judicial system. One can look at Haiti and the violence against women in the aftermath of the earth quake. Sure we can talk about reporting violence, but who will respond to the reports? Maybe we should also address funding for building a response mechanism to go along with the reporting mechanism. Maybe that is where we need the next wave of innovation to focus on. Even in the aid field in general, information shortage is not usually the issue, but rather what we can do with the information, what kind of response can be triggered.
    It’s a difficult issue. We are looking into supporting local protection mechanisms within the communities, but this is also tricky because the perpetrators of the violence might be parents, relatives or teachers or leaders in the community. So one of the first critical points is always awareness raising on the negative impacts of violence on children or whichever issue that you are hoping to address.
    What makes a difference is when the children feel empowered to discuss the issue of violence. Children are organizing radio shows centered around violence and learning to look for help. There are also traditional justice systems in most of the remote communities that deal with the issue of violence and we try to work with them whenever it's possible.

    ==================

    * All photos belong to the VAC project in Benin and are published with their permission.

    September 30 2010

    Russia: Landscape and Trends of Online Transparency Initiatives

    By Alexey Sidorenko

    Jaume Plensa Transparency by Anders Sandberg

    Jaume Plensa Transparency by Anders Sandberg

    For the past two years, one could witness the Russian blogosphere becoming more and more empowered by technology. Although the bloggers' abilities are quite limited, they have already attracted attention of both the Russian and international media.

    Until recently, the technological level of online transparency initiatives remained quite low. The majority of IT professionals were not eager to join civil society activists and their initiatives. The evidence of this can be seen on technology blogs (e.g., habrahabr.ru), where numerous “technocrats” fall for the traditionally cynical explanation of civic activity (the bottom line of the discourse can be described as “conspiracy of the West”).

    In 2010, this seems to have changed. As technology is getting more and more accessible and easy to develop, more online initiatives appear and are planned to be launched in late 2010 and 2011.

    Russian transparency projects can be divided into five main groups: 1. official and semi-official transparency websites (e.g., zakupki.gov.ru, rosspending.ru), 2. chaotic transparency communities (individual investigative bloggers and LJ communities), 3. online representation of civil activist NGOs (e.g., golos.org, publicverdict.ru), 4. next-generation social networks dedicated to transparency and civil rights activism (e.g., democrator.ru, taktaktak.ru), and a growing number of Ushahidi-based projects.

    1. Official and semi-official transparency websites

    Work on putting public procurement data online started in 2006 with the launch of zakupki.gov.ru, a catalog of major public expenses. Since then, a number of other official and semi-official websites have appeared (e.g., statetenders.ru, igz.hse.ru). All these websites have poor interface and a low level of data accessibility. These flaws and the lack of interactive functions lead to the emergence of LiveJournal communities dedicated to the analysis of the most bizarre deals.

    In July 2010, Rosspending.ru was launched to solve the visualization issue. Ivan Begtin, the creator of the project and one of the Russian Gov 2.0 evangelists, took the data and presented it in a more user-friendly and understandable way. Despite the lack of social networking as well as Semantic Web functionality, the portal has been inspired by data.gov.uk and data.gov and is the best example of the Russian government data visualization so far.

    2. Chaotic transparency communities and individual investigative bloggers

    A number of non-institutionalized LiveJournal communities have taken up the watchdog functions that traditional Russian NGOs simply fear to conduct. GV has been covering their activity recently.

    Individual investigative bloggers have probably had more impact than the LJ communities. The New Times called [RUS] eight most prominent investigative bloggers (Alexey Navalny, Alexey Dymovski, Alexander Malyutin and others) employees of a “self-made Ministry of the Interior”:

    […] общество провело черту между собой и милицией. В интернете обнаружились диссиденты в погонах, подменяющие собой Департамент собственной безопасности МВД, рассказывающие властям и согражданам о коррупции в органах и деградации службы. А блогеры стали искать и находить виновных в преступлениях, взяв на себя роль и уголовного розыска, и департамента экономической безопасности, и милиции общественного порядка. Пока власти рассуждают о реформе МВД, народ начал свою.

    […] the society has drawn a line between itself and the police. Dissidents [in uniform] turned up on the Internet, filling in for the internal affairs division of the police, telling the authorities and the citizens about corruption and degradation of service. And bloggers started to look for and find those guilty of the crimes, assuming the role of the criminal investigations department, and the department of economic security, and public order units. While the government is discussing the police reform, the people have started their own [reform].

    3. Online representation of offline NGOs

    “Traditional NGOs” still struggle with new tools. This happens for several reasons: the lack of vision, resources, and external conditions. There is an exception, though - golos.org, which has introduced two online transparency tools - The Election Hotline [RUS] and the Fact Bank [RUS]. (GV wrote about Golos' Election Hotline project here.)

    4. Next-Generation Transparency Tools

    So far there are only two projects in this category - democrator.ru and taktaktak.ru. Both were launched in 2010 and share social networking functionality (everyone can register, comment and take part in the site's activity) and issue-based structure.

    Democrator.ru helps citizens to discuss and prepare petitions and official appeals to the authorities, and monitors the issues by publishing official responses from the authorities. Taktaktak.ru connects citizens and lawyers, facilitating discussion of various issues and search for possible solutions. Both projects are of a very high technological level and represent unique transparency solutions.

    5. Ushahidi platforms

    The first Ushahidi in the Russian language was installed in Kyrgyzstan and was initially called “aikol.kg.” Later the project transformed into save.kg. Altynbek Ismailov, a Bishkek-based IT specialist, wanted to start Ushahidi for reporting the “Osh massacre” events, but didn't have enough time so he implemented it for the Kyrgyz Constitution Referendum that followed the tragic events. After the success of the referendum monitoring, Ismailov with his team is planning not only to monitor the upcoming election but also to use Ushahidi for reporting all kinds of problems.

    A month ago, Russian-Fires.ru (”Help Map”) was launched. The project's success brought to life numerous initiatives that are expected to start within the next few months. The topics of the planned projects include: observation of the upcoming Belarus election, reporting on the state of the highways, monitoring and fast response to civil rights violations (the so-called “Help Map 2.0″), monitoring in the city of Ufa, etc.

    More technology = more transparency?

    So, is Russia becoming a more transparent place then?

    Blogger and journalist Igor Bogatyrev (aka LJ user Allan999), said in an interview to GV that in today's Russia, the progress of technology in transparency is accompanied by the progress in perfecting various techniques of surpassing the transparency measures. Not to mention the “grey” money, which is not registered in any public account (according to some estimates, the “grey area” accounts for half of the country's GDP). Grigoriy Melkonyants, deputy director of “Golos” Association, said that in the election field, corruption and fraud techniques have evolved so far that the transparency technology has a lot to catch up with.

    More transparency initiatives that have appeared within the past year will neither eliminate corruption nor introduce the rule of law in the country. What they can do is to create an environment where information is efficiently verified, anti-corruption signals are distributed fast, and people from remote areas are united by transparency platforms and helping each other with no other mediator than a website.

    September 19 2010

    Bangladesh: Digitizing Land Records to Combat Corruption

    By Aparna Ray

    Corruption is rampant in Bangladesh. In 2009, the country ranked 139 out of 180 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Of the various sectors in Bangladesh that are affected by corruption, the Land Management System is among the worst. Corruption has been highlighted as the main reason behind slow, poor quality and faulty land related services in the country.

    Given the absence of a transparent system, bribery and other irregularities are common. People in the administration who are responsible for creating and maintaining land records often prepare incorrect records intentionally, and land owners are forced to pay bribes to officials to get the records approved. Officials and surveyors are often in cahoots with touts and land sharks; cases abound where people have paid bribes to officials and/or surveyors and gotten land ownership transferred/recorded illegally in their names, leaving the real owner(s) running pillar to post to get justice. In 2006 alone, bribes worth about 83 billion Bangladeshi Taka were paid for land related services such as registration and altering of records.

    Over 3.2 million land-related cases are pending before the judiciary in Bangladesh. This huge figure does not take into account the large number of the aggrieved who do not feel empowered enough to approach the courts for litigation. Land disputes often lead to violence and criminal offenses. It is said that 80 percent of criminal offenses today stem from land disputes.

    To deal with these problems of fraud and corruption,  the government is working to digitize the land records and the land management system to infuse some level of transparency and accountability into the sector and curb the rampant corruption. Currently, a digital database has been created for Dhaka city, and over 0.42 million land records have been uploaded into the database, which is soon to be inaugurated by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Other initiatives, either private or public sector led, are being actively considered. For example, Terra Tech Ltd, a conglomerate of 10 local IT Companies, has proposed a digital mapping and land revenue management system, which has received the green light from the government. The department hopes that these initiatives will be steps in the right direction for implementing the government's Vision 2021 of a Digital Bangladesh and will usher in a more effective land management system in Bangladesh.

    However, concerns have been raised regarding the limited success of past endeavors, which were localized and used different assumptions and follow-up actions. There is a growing realization and acknowledgment of the fact that isolated initiatives will not do much good. A consolidated plan has to be worked out under the public-private partnership (PPP) umbrella. In a recent dialogue [BN] on the effective use of ICT in the arena of Land Management, the Assistant Country Director of UNDP Bangladesh, Mr. K.A.M Morshed, presented a paper titled “Strategic Priorities of Digital Bangladesh: Land”, which stressed the need for a correct database through proper surveys, the creation of digital land zoning systems (namely GIS based maps with zones), a digital land registration system, and an up-to-date digital land information system integrated with the voter/national ID database that would offer easy access, search and verification facilities, and a digital land revenue tracking and management system.

    In one of his articles on Digital Land Systems [BN] on the blog Blogymate, Mustafa Jabbar, who is the developer of the Bijoy Bangla software and keyboard in Bangladesh, has pointed out that the mere digitization of land records will not be enough to achieve transparency and accountability. According to him, a complete overhaul of the land related laws and the current mechanism of service delivery  is needed, as the current system is pretty much archaic. Mr. Jabbar states that the new, automated land information system should have an integrated approach so that a person searching the database can get all information pertaining to the land at one glance: ownership, registration, mutation, transfer, disputes, judicial cases, land map, taxes paid and pending, land related wills and such other legal documents. Furthermore, he feels that having all of this information is not enough. It needs to be made accessible to people in an easy, user-friendly manner, not only via the Internet but through the telephony system as well. According to him, just as a consumer can now access his/ her telephone bill from home through the interactive voice response system, it should be as easy for a person to access land related information.

    There is a lot of hope riding on the effective use of ICT in the Land Management System of Bangladesh to usher in modernization, user-friendliness, transparency and accountability in this very important sector.

    September 14 2010

    I Paid A Bribe: An Endeavor in India

    By Namita Singh

    C=M+D-A. As Robert Klitgaard puts it, “Corruption equals Monopoly plus Discretion minus Accountability”.

    Corruption, especially political, is rampant in India, where it is seen as commonplace and citizens come face to face with it in their daily lives. It leads to severe injustice in a society and can even effect people’s survival. In the recent New Tactics dialogue on corruption, Shaazka Beyerle, Senior Advisor of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, gives the example of a widow who cannot access food through the Public Distribution System because the government official demands a bribe to issue her a ration card. Citizens who cannot afford to pay up suffer due to their inability, and those who can have no option than to give in to corruption. There has been increasing anger and frustration against bribery, but at the same time there is a high level of tolerance too. Some citizens habitually offer bribes in exchange for services, further perpetuating corruption.

    I Paid A Bribe tries to address this complex issue that mars the Indian society. It encourages people to not put up with official abuse of power and to report their stories of bribery to “uncover the market price of corruption.” People can report when they paid a bribe, when they didn’t and when they weren’t asked to pay one by submitting their story through a form, blogging about it or even posting a video.

    This initiative, organized by Janaagraha, was launched on August 15 (India’s Independence Day), 2010.  T R Raghunandan, a former senior civil servant and now the coordinator of the initiative, says the goal is “to build a snapshot of the corruption scenario in India.” Janaagraha has developed an innovative tactic to deal with corruption. The idea is less focused on taking action with specific departments based on individual citizen reports, but rather to use a systematized process to identify the most serious areas of corruption. Raghunandan observes that “every society has a very good idea of the corruption that happens there”; what is needed, then, is a better understanding of how and why corruption happens. The reports posted on the website are aggregated and analyzed. These analyses expose the more corrupt departments, loopholes used by officials to demand bribes, situations in which bribes are demanded and so on, and after identifying situations and processes susceptible to corruption, Janaagraha approaches the departments and the government for action. The following illustration represents this.

    The intent of I Paid a Bribe is also to encourage and empower more citizens so that they bring out their stories and experiences, which helps build more awareness. In addition to people’s reports on bribery, the homepage of the website has a slideshow giving some vital statistics. A map titled “Corruption Commons” lists out the number of complaints from different states of India. The seriousness of the issue is brought out in these various ways, helping corruption and bribery change from something people just talk about into an issue people can do something about. People can act through a simple, easy and non-threatening process, where they are not required to identify themselves or give an individual official’s name in their reports.

    Other interesting and interactive features include the “Ask Raghu” section. Raghunandan answers specific questions that people ask, providing them with the information they need. He explains that people are usually very fearful of the government, something that is mainly due to lack of information. There should be more information available so that people are more confident to deal with officials and can put their foot down on following the laid procedures and not paying a bribe. There are plans to put out White papers, the first one being on Land and Property Registration in a month’s time along with a video feature, so that people are equipped with the right knowledge about the procedures, fees, time needed and the duties of the officials. The ‘Impact’ section mentions cases in which people have been able to stand against bribery through information Janaagraha had made available, and by simply raising their voice.

    People can also give their suggestions and contribute to newer practical and tactical approaches to dealing with corruption on the website’s forum. Through this platform, citizens can share their experiences of corruption, be empowered to monitor the injustice against them and collaborate to fight against it.

    So, “bribed? didn't bribe? powerless? victimised? angry? tell your story” and fight back!

    September 08 2010

    Brazil: A guide to tech for transparency projects in the 2010 elections

    By Manuella Ribeiro

    Brazil’s electoral law reform, approved in 2009, will have a positive impact on the October 2010 general election by giving citizens access to more information than ever before. Furthermore, many emerging transparency projects from civil society, the private sector and the public sector are working together, actively using new technology tools to make the election visible and to get citizens involved in the upcoming celebration of democracy.

    Next October, about 135 million [pt] Brazilians will vote for president, governor, senator, federal and state or district deputies. Last year, the Electoral Reform [pt] opened the doors for politics 2.0 by authorizing parties to use social networks (Twitter, Facebook and others) to raise campaign donations and participate in streamlined debates.

    Before the elections, multiple projects were already working on issues such as transparency, civic engagement and public policies monitors. Google created an election platform [pt], compiling information about presidential candidates and displaying an interactive map showing election results since 1994, as well as bringing together the most active civil society initiatives: Campanha Ficha Limpa (“No Criminal Record Campaign”), Excelências (“Excellences”), Movimento Voto Consciente (“Conscientious Vote Movement”), VotenaWeb (“Vote on the Web”), and Eleitor 2010 (“Elector 2010”).

    Google’s platform encourages voters to ask questions to their candidates by submitting them via a YouTube channel. The best questions, as chosen by the platform users, will be answered by candidates on television.

    Paula Góes, Global Voices’ Multi-Lingual Editor, wrote about Campanha Ficha Limpa: “The Ficha Limpa (No Criminal Record) bill…seeks to prevent politicians who have committed serious crimes, such as misuse of public funds, corruption, murder and drug trafficking, from running in elections.” The Movimento de Combate à Corrupção Eleitoral [Movement Against Electoral Corruption] created the campaign in 2008 and prepared a bill (in Brazil, the citizens can propose a bill if they obtain a certain number of signatures). Avaaz.org played an important role in collecting signatures and putting pressure on the legislature to approve the bill. The Ficha Limpa Law was enacted by president Luiz Inácio Lula in June 2010.

    The Superior Electoral Court ruled that the Ficha Limpa Law is valid and enforceable for the 2010 elections. After that decision, the founders of the campaign launched a website to monitor candidates’ compliance with the law, with additional features like visualizing gathered data and news from the media. The site also includes a form to report candidate misbehavior.

    If a candidate wants to be listed on the Ficha Limpa site, he or she must fulfill a pledge of transparency during the campaign by presenting a weekly report on his or her spending and other information. Forty candidates have already registered.

    Voto Consciente is an association that was founded in 1987. The objective is to consolidate citizen participation by informing the public about politicians and their competencies. They also have a website to present that information and news about the association. They have many online activities, such as participation in social networks, publications and videos. For example, the movement in the city of Jundiai published a document about 16 candidates for state deputy and information about how citizens can use the Internet to supervise politicians or propose solutions for their city’s problems.

    The other projects presented in Google’s platform have been documented as case studies on the Technology for Transparency Network. VotenaWeb was studied in the first phase of our research, while Excelências and Eleitor 2010 will be presented in the coming weeks.

    Votenaweb allows citizens to compare their votes on congressional bills with the politicians'. Using a clear interface, congressional bills are translated into simple language with clearly defined context and consequences. In addition to monitoring the voting records on particular bills, users can also interact with the political landscape by symbolically voting for or against each bill. This tool helps citizens choose who to vote for by enabling them to find candidates’ voting records in recent years.

    Excelências was created in 2006 by Transparência Brasil (“Transparency Brazil”). Excelências uses the Internet to make information about Brazilian parliamentarians available to the public. They use official data to increase transparency surrounding 2368 politicians. As with VotenaWeb, Excelências helps inform citizens about the candidates in the 2010 elections.

    GV contributors Paula Goes and Diego Casaes are the coordinators of Eleitor 2010.

    Eleitor 2010 (”Elector 2010″), which was recently covered on Global Voices by Janet Gunter, intends to monitor Brazil's elections in 2010. The project uses the Internet to receive complaints about irregular campaigns during the elections. It uses the crowdsourding platform Ushahidi to document and map content submitted by citizens via SMS, email, Twitter, and various social networks. The coordinators are Paula Goes and Diego Casaes, both of Global Voices.

    Multiple projects in Brazil track candidate behavior and monitor politicians’ work after they are elected. Congresso Aberto (“Open Congress”) visualizes and analyzes official data from Brazil's Congress. In Cidade Democratica (“Democratic City”), citizens document and discuss municipal problems and solutions as well as discussing candidates’ proposals and visiting candidate profiles. Finally, Adote um Vereador (“Adopt a politician”) encourages Brazilian citizens to blog about the work of their local elected officials in order to hold them accountable. Though Adote um Vereador currently focuses on local politicians, Milton Jung, one of the founders, hopes to extend the project to national politicians elected in October.

    Additional projects

    Several other initiatives to increase citizen participation before the elections are also at work in Brazil:

    • 10 Perguntas (“10 Questions”): Until September 3, citizens can send questions for the president candidates. After this date, the top 10 questions chosen by the users will be answered by the candidates.
    • Eu lembro (“I remember”): This website searches for information about all candidates in social networks as Twitter, Wikipedia, Busk and YouTube. It also provides a platform where users can discuss the candidates.
    • Quanto vale seu candidato? (“How much is your candidate worth?”): This site allows citizens to visualize information about the property holdings of various candidates.
    • Voto Certo (“Right Vote”): This website contains information about 2010 elections such as candidates, campaign financing, and electoral campaign map and a timeline.

    Conclusion

    The upcoming elections are marked by the highest Internet usage ever in Brazil, both by candidates and by citizens. For example, all candidates for president have accounts on Twitter and other social networks. The first online election debate, promoted last week by an Internet provider, surpassed 1.7 million hits and led the trending topics on Twitter during that period. At the same time, these tools are not restricted to use by candidates and media. Several NGOs, citizens and companies are using the Internet to improve access to information about candidates or supervision of the campaign. Google’s platform presents part of these experiences.

    Hopefully technology tools and connectivity will help Brazil to elect better politicians for the next four years and to create a database about these politicians that will help hold them accountable for their actions in government. Despite the relatively short time of using these tools, we can say that by Brazil’s next elections, the Internet will be established as a space to promote greater information on candidates and the actions of government.

    Brazil: “Do It Yourself” Clean Elections

    By Janet Gunter

    [This post was originally published on Ushahidi's blog. Ushahidi is an open-source mapping tool that was developed in Kenya at a time of crisis in 2008 and has since been used for crowdsourcing worldwide.]

    School children being told to chant candidates’ names by their teachers. Civil servants getting sacked for not campaigning for their political bosses. Zinc roofing being traded for votes. The public wholesaling of voters’ personal data to campaigners. Death threats to those who denounce electoral crimes.

    Welcome to the unpleasant side of Brazilian electioneering.

    These are just some of the reports coming from Eleitor 2010, a “crowdsourcing” project aiming to facilitate citizen reports of abuses of the electoral process in Brazil.

    In the largest democracy in Latin America - with over 120 million voters - this year, voters go to the polls they will be choosing the successor of one of the country's most popular Presidents in history (Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva) but also voting on governors, a large portion of Congress.

    Eleitor2010 website

    Every country has its own unique political culture and oddities. Even the most minimal democracy has its own rules around electioneering, the mechanics of the vote, and ensuring that the state regulates the electoral process.

    Brazil was one of the first democracies of its size to use electronic voting machines. It also has compulsory voting. But other aspects of its electoral process are unique, including attempts to strictly regulate of online campaigning, vote buying and what are called “showmícios” (concert-rallies).

    Brazil has very clear and comprehensive laws regulating elections but the problem is enforcing these laws.

    There is a real culture of politicians subverting the law, maintaining a privileged position as patrons of voters in Brazil. This stems from a distant colonial past and continued persistent inequality, where entrenched elite interests have maintained themselves.

    The idea behind Eleitor 2010, which is a purely volunteer, non-partisan project run by a virtual team with zero funding, is to engage the voter beyond the day of the election. According to Paula Góes and Diego Casaes, its creators - who met via Twitter and now collaborate on Global Voices Online, the project is to promote critical and active citizenship, that challenges some of the arcane and undemocratic practices mentioned above.

    Eleitor 2010 runs on the open source software Ushahidi, a web-based platform which received much attention for its utility in mapping incidents after the Haiti earthquake, driven by SMS reports from the ground.

    Ushahidi has yet to reach its full potential as an election monitoring platform, say Góes and Casaes. With an estimated 25% of the country online every day, and one of the highest mobile subscriber rates in Latin America, they hope Brazil could be the place where it comes of age this year. Four weeks away from the election, Eleitor 2010 already has 230+ reports, from every state in the country, and from the most remote areas.

    However, it is an uphill battle to get the message out about the platform, in a country where broadcast and print media are still strong, held in the hands of a privileged elite bent on defending its interests.

    Despite this, the communications team at Eleitor 2010 has generated some media attention, and networking with other online transparency initiatives has been crucial. Google recently featured Eleitor 2010 on its page dedicated to the Brazilian elections.

    Góes and Casaes hope that with their awareness campaign - on social networks including Orkut with over 40 million users, partnerships with networks of internet cafés, NGOs, and social movements - Eleitor 2010 will break through and change the way thousands of voters engage in the electoral process.

    Through the plaftorm, some entertaining anecdotes have already come to light, well in advance of the October 3 vote.

    Voters caught one man in a small town in the interior selling off Twitter accounts with 40,000+ followers for the sickeningly low price of US$125. This is illegal under Brazilian electoral law. When confronted, the man in question gave more incriminating evidence and then threatened to sue Eleitor 2010. The evidence, including screenshots and transcript of a chat with him, were delivered to the Electoral Courts.

    Another comic report from São Paulo, where teachers at a school illegally encouraged children to chant for two candidates, one for mayor and one for President, and it backfired with children instinctively chanting “Lula!” “Lula!” The video circulated widely, and has had over 70,000 views.

    Another video that raised eyebrows was one by blogger Ricardo Gama of a VW bus owned by the City Hall being used for a campaign in Rio de Janeiro. The blogger shouts “Are you carrying electoral propaganda in the car of the City Hall? This is an electoral crime! I filmed it. I am going to denounce you.”

    From the north of Brazil, in the state of Maranhão, word reached Eleitor 2010 that a network of evangelical churches was offering to “trade” 3,000 votes for “support” after the election. In the state of São Paulo, one Bishop implored the faithful not to support President Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Roussef.

    These examples indicate how this platform and online, participatory tools will be of use in years to come. No matter whether it goes “viral” and becomes a household name, Eleitor 2010 and other transparency initiatives have already become game-changers this election year.

    September 06 2010

    India: Are e-Governance initiatives delivering on transparency and accountability?

    By Aparna Ray

    In India, there has been an upswing in various Government-to-Citizen (G2C) e-Governance initiatives. Various government agencies and service providers are now embracing social media and other information and communication technology (ICT) platforms to engage citizens, optimize service delivery and reassure the public with respect to the government's transparency and accountability.

    For example, we recently saw the Delhi Traffic Police (DTP) using Facebook to collect information about traffic violations. The Indore Police Department has been using a blog, Twitter, online and mobile complaint forms, a Google map of police stations and a digital crime mapper to track criminal activities in the region.

    Indore Police - Digital Crime Mapper

    The Maharashtra Police Department launched an SMS-based complaint tracking system (CTS), called “Turant Chovis” (”Within 24 Hours”), which promised to quickly redress citizen complaints by sending a first response within 24 hours and resolving the issue within 30 days. One of department's divisions, the Nasik Rural Police Department, even won appreciation at the Manthan Awards 2009 for their presentation on the modalities of the system and how they had achieved 96 percent success in implementing the Turant Chovis scheme.

    Adoption of technology for better governance is not restricted to the police departments alone. Various state governments are also beefing up their e-Governance initiatives with use of interactive technology in areas such as citizen grievance redressal. The Sanjog Helpline is a single-window centralized grievance redressal system for the rural state of Orissa. Citizens can register grievances through a toll free number, fax or e-mail, as well as through the Sanjog Helpline portal in their villages. They can also at a later stage track and get acknowledgment of the status of their complaints. Jhansi, in Uttar Pradesh, has launched the Jhansi Jan Suvidha Kendra, a telephone-based grievance redressal system. The Madhya Pradesh government has an online complaint registration facility on its website. The site also allows tracking of individual complaints and displays statistics regarding the number of complaints received and successfully resolved.

    Other departments such as the railways and income tax departments have also replaced some of their face to face interactions with online service delivery systems, presumably to make citizens' lives simpler and to take out human interactions from the service interface as part of their efforts to reduce corruption. Citizens can now file taxes and buy rail tickets online.

    These initiatives all promise convenience, engagement, transparency and accountability. However, to what extent are they successful? What has been their impact? Have they indeed managed to bring about the much-desired end goals of increasing government transparency and accountability? Unfortunately we have not yet seen much evaluation of the impact of these initiatives on the ground as far as enhancing transparency and accountability are concerned, which gives rise to concerns that perhaps some of them are mere window dressing — feel-good initiatives with no real wind beneath their wings.

    For example, take the case of complaint tracking systems. When a citizen register a complaint and try to track it, she gets a message that her complaint is “in process.” This is a quick response, but what does it really translate into, other than making her feel frustrated after seeing the same status over and over? In this case, she cannot even vent her frustration anywhere, as there is no face to face interaction!

    Recently, an experience with the online railway booking system has left me more skeptical of these initiatives. It's true that the online railway booking system has made life easier. No need to queue at the counters, no need to pay an agent or middle-man to get confirmed bookings. However, try to get some refunds for a canceled ticket, and then you will face the music.  This January, when a train I was supposed to take was delayed for over 10 hours, I decided to cancel the ticket instead of wasting time at the station (the rules online clearly stated that full refund will be given if a train is more than 3 hours late). However, I could not cancel my ticket at the station, as a ticket booked online can only be canceled through an online application.

    Upon filing an online refund application, I received an instant, polite mail saying that my refund was in process and that I could track my application online. After a couple of months I got back 50 percent of the cost of the ticket, and the online status read “case resolved.” But why only 50 percent, when the rules stated that the refund would be 100 percent? No answer. Repeated mails have resulted in instant polite replies that the mail is being forwarded to the right department, but till date, apart from politeness there has been nothing concrete to address my grievance. The help desk, though happy to help, has no power to sort out the issue — they also have no clue as to who is accountable and whom I can approach if I want to escalate the matter. Moreover, I am handicapped by the fact that online cases apparently have to be sorted out online, so I cannot approach any officer at the railway offices! 

    Dozens of similar cases have happened with online income tax refunds, where the Department has remitted a nominal amount and marked the case closed. Citizens who want to get back what is actually due to them most likely have to bribe their way through the system.

    Instances such as these make one wary of the tall claims of government departments about e-Governance G2C initiatives that promise transparency and accountability. However, that is not to say that such initiatives are not welcome. They are steps in the right direction. However, merely installing tools and technology is not enough. The government needs to ensure proper implementation. There should also be monitoring and evaluation, not only by government bodies but also by civil society groups that can pressure the government to uphold their promises to increase transparency and accountability.

    August 31 2010

    Egypt: Utilizing Technology to Demand Accountability on Torture, Police Brutality

    By Anas Qtiesh

    The unfortunate emergency law in Egypt suspends personal rights and gives security forces unlimited power to unlawfully arrest, interrogate, and persecute anyone with unfavorable views. Perpetrators of police brutality and torture often go unpunished, but Egyptian bloggers and and tech savvy youth are not standing idly by.

    Photo documenting police brutality courtesy of Torture in Egypt blog. Used under a Creative Commons 2.5 NC-ND license.

    The Torture in Egypt blog acts as a hub for individuals and initiatives concerned with torture and police brutality. It offers the latest news and reports, videos, victim testimonies, court records, case documents, NGO statements, confessions of retired high ranking police officials, and links to books and papers covering the topic. It also offers to help any human rights researchers and activists and provides them with resources that inform their work.

    A recent tragic incident ended up with death of Khalid Saeed, an Egyptian citizen who was beaten to death in Alexandria by two police officers. Egyptians were outraged and heavily organized online demanding that his killers be held accountable for their acts. Bloggers penned dozens of posts, a Facebook page was created, and Twitter users tried to get Saeed's name to trend on Twitter in an attempt to raise awareness. Several protests were organized, including a silent protest outside the Ministry of Interior demanding justice. This pushed political parties to issue official statements on the matter. Many blogs still carry a banner reminding the readers that anyone of them could be the next Saeed.

    Wael Abbas, the blogger and activist behind Misr Digital, made a name for himself by publishing leaked videos of instances of torture committed by police officers, some very graphic in nature. Abbas has also live-streamed protests from the streets of Cairo. He often publishes documents and images exposing corruption or forgery. His worked has earned several international awards and TV appearances on Al Jazeera and BBC. He was recently named as one of the 100 most influential Arabs by Arabian Business Magazine.

    Interactive Torture Map

    Other remarkable uses of technology include a Flickr photo pool named Piggidpedia موسوعة الجلادين, which contains over 250 photos of police officers, some of whom are accused of having committed breaches of human rights. The group is managed by a number of Egyptian bloggers, and all contributions and images are open to the public. Torturemap.info provides an interactive custom map of torture reports in different locations in Egypt. It also allows users to report on any new instances of torture in an effort to provide a visual representation of these abuses. This also makes it easier to search for various torture and brutality crimes committed in any given location or city in Egypt.

    These bloggers, activists, and techies have managed to use freely available tools and online services to internationally embarrass the Egyptian government and pressure it into action against those abuses. By doing so they have set a shining example for organizations and individuals working on promoting transparency and accountability in the MENA region, and around the world.

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