Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 27 2010

[Report] Technology for Transparency

By David Sasaki

This report is the culmination of four months of research examining the objectives, challenges, successes, and effects of online technology projects that aim to promote transparency, political accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. A team of eight regional researchers documented a total of 37 case studies of relevant technology projects. Though this report contains only executive summaries of each case study, full interviews including audio podcasts and related documents, are available on our website. In addition to the in-depth case studies, we have also documented over 30 project listings, which provide basic descriptive information and context about related projects.

This report is structured in three sections. The introduction examines the differing aspects between traditional watchdog journalism and online media that rely on raw data sources, often directly from government websites. The introduction also aims to contextualize the benefits of transparency, accountability, and civic engagement from a grassroots, networked perspective. The second section of the report consists of regional overviews authored by each of our eight researchers. These overviews document the history of the good governance movement in each region, the role of technology in promoting transparency and accountability, and summaries of the case studies they documented. The concluding section groups case studies thematically in order draw out trends, conclusions, and recommendations that apply across a number of projects.

Here's a teaser:

The birth of the World Wide Web as we know it today dates back to March 1989 when Tim Berners Lee, then a research fellow at European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, wrote a proposal for an Internet framework that would allow online documents to link to one another. Eight months later in neighboring Germany protesters brought down the Berlin Wall, and with it fell more than half a century of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The next decade would also see an end to the repressive era of military dictatorships in Latin America, the birth of multiparty democracy in much of Sub- Saharan Africa, and a financial crisis in Southeast Asia that led to calls for greater governance and improved accountability. The World Wide Web and the movement for transparency and accountability in government have grown up together over the past two decades, though often in parallel, and with little research evaluating the role and potential of online technologies to bring about greater transparency, accountability, and civic engagement.

Download Final Report (PDF) - Right click, save as

May 22 2010

Technology for Transparency Review, Part VI

By David Sasaki

Over the past week we have published a number of posts to present our conclusions and recommendations to the technology for transparency movement by focusing on specific categories of projects: aid transparency, budget monitoring, election monitoring, civic complaints, and parliamentary informatics.

Those five categories encompass the vast majority of projects that we documented throughout our research. However, there are five other categories of technology for transparency projects that are also worth reviewing from a thematic perspective.

Crime Mapping

A number of websites have cropped up over the past few years in the United States and United Kingdom to add transparency and accessibility to crime reports from municipal police departments. CrimeMapping.com, Oakland Crimespotting, CrimeMapper, LAPD Crime Maps, CrimeReports, SpotCrime, Crimedar, and EveryBlock (which began in 2005 as ChicagoCrime.org) are just a few such examples. Outside of the United States and United Kingdom the majority of crime mapping projects seem to be based in Latin America, which claims 8% of the world's population, 40% of world's homicides, and 66% of kidnappings.

WikiCrimes.org is a collaborative, global, multilingual mapping of crimes around the world that is built with WikiMapps software. It was conceived by Vasco Furtado, Professor at the University of Fortaleza, Brazil where he coordinates a research group in “Knowledge Engineering.” All data can both be imported and exported in the open standard KML format. WikiCrimes currently has 13,117 reports of crime, almost all of which are based in Brazil. Reports can be filtered by category, time, and credibility. Users can sign up for notifications of crime reports based on their customized filters, and there is a beta mobile application available in Portuguese. All crime reports are ranked by their number of views, comments, and confirmations, and are re-distributed via Twitter. Users can confirm crime reports by linking to relevant news items or video and photographic evidence of the actual crime. So far the most commented crime is a homicide that took place on March 29, 2008 at 11 in the evening in Sao Paulo. It has received 22 positive confirmations, one negative confirmation, and four comments.

wikicrimes.org

Delitos Ecuador is a project of Fundapi which uses Ushahidi to collect and aggregate crime reports in Ecuador. Reports can also be submitted via Twitter using the hashtag #delitosEC. The Illegal Drug Trade Map in Argentina combines a blog with a Google map. It was created by the Argentinian Association Against Drugs and enables citizens to learn more about the illegal drug trade in Argentina, and to submit locations where they have seen drug dealing take place. Panamá Transparente uses Ushahidi to aggregate and map reports about crime in Panama. Iluminemos Mexico is a citizen network against violence in Mexico that maps crimes and invites users to discuss and implement solutions to internal security problems. Outside of Latin America, Sithi is a Cambodian human rights portal that aims to crowdsource and curate reports of human rights violations across multiple human rights organizations.

Recommendations:

While most crime mapping websites in the United States visualize official crime data from municipal police departments, which can then be confirmed and commented on by users, all of the crime mapping projects we documented depend on individual citizens to provide the information. This is likely due to the fact that police departments in most of the world still do not publish their crime reports, much less in a structured format that can be automatically mapped and re-purposed. We recommend to crime mapping project coordinators that they work in collaboration with local police departments in order to automate the publishing of official crime data. If a project has successfully convinced a police department to publish its crime reports, we suggest that they publish their experience to help provide like-minded projects with an advocacy strategy.

While mapping crime helps us better understand both where it occurs and how crime spreads over time, it does not necessarily lead toward pro-active solutions. In fact, it can even lead to paranoia and social exclusion if residents react by merely investing in higher walls and more expensive alarm systems. Crime mapping platforms should focus on prevention as much as after-the-fact reporting. We recommend that they integrate their content with social groups that are working in neighborhoods where crime is prevalent and youth are at risk.

We believe that crime mapping platforms should collaborate with local bloggers, journalists, and activists to host monthly discussions about how to deal with a crime problem that has been particularly troublesome over the past four weeks. We suggest that it is useful to think of crime through the lens of epidemiology, with a focus on curing the disease.

Extractive Industries

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill illustrates and justifies the public's interest in the activities of extractive industries. The Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative aims to bring about greater disclosure of payments from companies to governments, contracts and information on how revenues are spent by the oil, mining, and gas sectors. We believe that the movement for greater extractive industry transparency would benefit from the use of technology to bring about greater awareness of the activities of the extractive industries, but so far we have been able to find few examples of existing projects.

Publish What You Pay is a global civil society coalition that helps citizens of resource-rich developing countries hold their governments accountable for the management of revenues from the oil, gas and mining industries. It has supported a number of capacity building workshops worldwide. Landman Report Card is a project of the ExtrAct group at MIT which aims to provide information and tools to residents whose land is coveted by oil and gas companies. While its focus is almost entirely on the United States, the platform and resources can also be used by residents worldwide.

Nomad Green is a multilingual platform for Mongolian environmental citizen journalists to document environmental threats and climate change in their country. Much of their reporting and documentation has focused on the environmental and social impact of open-pit mining. They use SeeClickFix to map examples of harmful and illegal mining, and to encourage direct action. The Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America has a rudimentary map which links to information about mining-related community conflicts that have taken place throughout Latin America. So far it links to information about 136 different conflicts.

Recommendations:

We recommend that Publish What You Pay, Revenue Watch Institute, and the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative all attend and host barcamps that invite technologists and bloggers to strategically discuss how online tools can be used to bring about more transparency in the extractive industries - both in terms of environmental/social impact and also financial corruption. The World Wildlife Federation's Amazon Map and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade Oil Spill Crisis Map are two models for mapping impact, whereas Sourcemap illustrates a potential platform to map the flow of money related to extractive industries.

Local Government

In our podcast interview, Fabiano Angelico observed that while most technology for transparency projects focus on federal government transparency, their potential for impact is in fact much stronger at the local level where users are likely to be more invested in policy decisions that directly affect their daily lives. Compared to national level projects we were able to find relatively few technology for transparency projects at the local level, however it is also likely that there is less awareness and available information about those projects.

Local Accountability Portals in Atitlan provides easy-to-use and cheap tools to help local municipalities of four different villages in the department of Sololá to publish all the information required by law on their local government websites. Concejo Visible Bucaramanga is an initiative coordinated by Universidad Industrial de Santander in Colombia to make more transparent the activities of the Bucaramanga Municipal Council Administration. It also opened a collaborative space to share ideas and discuss policies that matter to them. Concejo Visible Bucaramanga is, in fact, one of a number of similar citizen-led transparency initiatives that make up the Colombian Network of Citizen Observers.

Adote um Vereador encourages Brazilian citizens to blog about the work of their local elected officials in order to hold them accountable. Fabiano Angelico, our research reviewer who is also based in Sao Paulo, suggests that participating bloggers should pick a monthly topic and try to raise awareness and advocate for more government data related to that one topic. It is worth noting that a similar “adopt a politician” campaign began in Peru in 2008 when the well known journalist Rosa María Palacios asked citizens to mount pressure in order to get information about the operational expenses of national congressmen. Juan Arellano wrote an in-depth review of the project, which is no longer active following the overwhelming resistance by most congressmen.

Recommendations:

We recommend to all developers and coordinators of local technology for transparency projects that they read Georg Neumann's post “Developing Hyper-Local Integrity Systems to fight and prevent corruption“, which encourages such projects to use the National Integrity System Assessment as a holistic framework to analyze both the extent and causes of corruption in a given country.

We also support and encourage the replication of “adopt a politician” projects in all municipalities worldwide to create more awareness and accountability at the local level.

Private Sector:

We specifically set out to document projects that aim to increase government transparency and political accountability, but throughout the course of our research it became clear that several private sector transparency projects are explicitly in the public's interest, including those related to consumer rights and the environmental/social impact of corporate behavior.

Quien Paga Manda (”Who Pays is in Charge”) is a Costa Rican blog by former journalist (and Technology for Transparency Network advisor) Hazel Feigenblatt. It serves as an information resource about the responsiveness of businesses to customers who have received poor service. It is also meant to amplify the voices of citizens who otherwise have no recourse to hold private businesses accountable. Issues are categorized by electronics, banks, restaurants, public services, and vehicles. Reclamos.cl is a similar consumers' rights platform based in Chile, which has a strong focus on working with broadcast media to distribute and amplify stories about companies that are unresponsive to consumer complaints. So far they have managed to facilitate 1,869 mainstream media stories, which are broken down by media outlet on their front page. In addition to filing complaints, users can also list recommendations for positive service experiences. A business directory lists complaints by business, and select complaints are featured on the “emphasized complaints” page. Every complaint lists the number of comments it has received and the number of times it has been read.

Sourcemap is an open source, global platform for researching, optimizing and sharing the supply chains behind a number of everyday products. “We believe that people have the right to know where things come from and what they are made of,” declares the website. Sample sourcemaps include a Giant TCR ‘04 Bicycle, iPod, Tesla Roadster, and IKEA Sultan Alsarp bed. Sourcemaps are organized by user-submitted tags, and also by “most favorited”, “most commented”, and “most complex”.

CorpWatch is a San Francisco-based aggregator and platform of articles, blog posts, investigative reports, statistics, and multimedia related to the corporate accountability worldwide. It categorizes its content by industry and issue.

Recommendations:

In most developing countries the past two decades have seen the privatization of many industries that were once run by the government. As privatization continues, citizens must develop new tools to hold those new private corporations accountable. Archon Fung rightly points out that the transparency movement should focus on private companies at least as much as government agencies. We recommend to all technology for transparency activists that they invest more of their time on projects that hold corporations accountable.

All of the above-mentioned projects publish content related to multinational corporations. Most of them categorize that content per corporation to create site-wide business directories. But we do not yet have an aggregator of all of this related content across multiple platforms to provide a more comprehensive look at the responsiveness, behavior, and social/environmental impact of major corporations. We recommend that private sector transparency projects convene a conference to agree on semantic standards that can easily be aggregated and re-purposed across their platforms.

As one of the ultimate goals of such projects is to improve the behavior and responsiveness of corporations, we recommend that private sector transparency projects partner with business schools to systematically study what advocacy strategies are most effective in convincing corporations to voluntarily become more accountable. For example, is it possible to organize a competition on Sourcemap where major clothing companies voluntarily submit the supply chains of their products to compete for the lowest carbon footprint?

Advocacy:

Admittedly, the most nebulous category of projects on the Technology for Transparency Network is “advocacy.” At worst it can be seen as something of a miscellaneous dumping ground of all projects that don't belong elsewhere. On the other hand, advocacy projects can also be seen as the glue which holds together all of the above-mentioned categories, and tries to fill the gaps in the transparency and accountability ecosystem. Unless awareness is spread in government, the media, and civil society about the need for such projects, they will never scale up to a level where their impact can be measured over time.

More information more Rights [Más Información Más Derechos] promotes public debate on access to public information in Colombia. In addition to its blog, it also promotes discussion and distributes information via Twitter, Facebook, Slideshare, and Scribd. Képmutatás, which means “hypocrisy” in Hungarian, advocates for more transparency in campaign financing in Hungary by estimating the unreleased expenses made by political parties during election campaigns and distributing their findings through traditional and social media. Kubatana.net has built a network of over 200 civil society organizations in Zimbabwe, an archive of over 15,800 documents, and an SMS subscriber list of over 9,000 individuals. It promotes collective action, such as a campaign to determine how toll booth revenue is being used by the government. Saatsaam, which means ‘clean’ in Khmer, aims to encourage public participation in promoting transparency by raising awareness about the impact of corruption, and making related documents freely available. ProAcceso, founded by Mercedes de Freitas of the Venezuelan chapter of Transparency International, is a coalition of organizations in Venezuela that advocate for timely, relevant government data related to public health, education, politics, law enforcement, the use of public resources, and salaries of public officials.

Recommendations:

Most advocacy projects we documented target either governments or the general public in their efforts to increase awareness about the importance of transparency and accountability, and the role that open data plays in bringing about both. We recognize that each audience is distinct and requires different strategies.

For groups advocating to governments, we recommend that they frame their advocacy in terms of cooperation rather than hostility. Transparency and accountability should be framed as pathways toward political credibility. We specifically recommend that advocacy groups seek out like-minded supporters who work in high government positions and depend on them to help promote and amplify the importance of transparent governance and open data from within.

For groups advocating to the general public, we recommend that they work closely with both mainstream and social media. The World Bank and Transparency International have published a number of guides and white papers on how to design effective anti-corruption campaigns. People, Spaces, Deliberation, a blog of the World Bank's CommGAP initiative, also frequently publishes recommendations and case studies related to advocacy campaigns for transparency and accountability.

As much as possible, avoid acronyms and unnecessarily technical language. Creativity always helps draw attention to your cause. For example, Fifth Pillar, an NGO headquartered in Chennai, India, printed “Zero Ruppees” bills with the image of Ghandi to be given to any official asking for a bribe. The initiative was covered by CNN, the Economist, the Telegraph, Boing Boing, and many other international media outlets. Fifth Pillar received calls from interested groups in Nepal, Argentina, Mexico, France and Germany who wanted to implement their own zero currency projects.

The Zero Rupees initiative was a creative response to spread awareness about the problem of bribery in India. Similar creativity should be applied to initiatives and campaigns that advocate for open government data.

Conclusion:

With this post we conclude the first phase of our research into the role of technology in the transparency and accountability movement. Our platform, however, remains open to new submissions of relevant, innovative projects, and we anticipate a second phase of research with a greater focus on evaluation for impact.

One of the most difficult challenges throughout our research was simply developing a taxonomy to categorize and describe the projects we documented. We recognize that technology for transparency projects might choose to describe themselves and their objectives in language that differs from traditional anti-corruption organizations and the donors that fund them. We believe that categories on the website will always be dynamic and will shift as new projects come online and maturing projects evolve their objectives and strategies.

Over the next few days all of our research will be bundled into a single PDF document for the sake of cohesiveness and distribution. However, we emphasize that the distribution of reports is not as significant as the distribution of new ideas that turn into concrete projects and partnerships. As such, the objective of the Technology for Transparency Network will always be to facilitate the sharing and learning of skills and strategies across projects, sectors, and communities. We aim to translate our findings into as many languages as possible. (Already our findings have been translated into Portuguese, French, Chinese, Spanish, and Bahasa.) In the future we hope to host live chats with developers, bloggers, and activists focused on similar works of engagement in order to spread the best ideas and come up with new ones.

We will especially re-distribute our findings, conclusions, and recommendations to all groups and projects that have been mentioned throughout our research. And we will work with like-minded research and mapping projects including ParticipateDB, Participedia, the International Association for Public Participation, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, ePractice, MobileActive's mDirectory, and LocalLabs to ensure that our work is cross-linked and cross-verified.

We encourage interaction, new ideas, and challenges to everything we have published. Please do get involved to help push the discourse and the movement forward.

May 20 2010

Technology for Transparency Review, Part V

By David Sasaki

If “hanging chads” and faulty computer chips are causes for concern in today's elections, just imagine the likely fraud that took place in Classical Athens when residents often used small pebbles to cast (literally) their votes. The study of those pebbles, or the votes they represent, developed into an entire academic discipline, Psephology. (Psephos, or ψῆφος, is literally “pebble” in Greek).

But then, Classical Athens in the 5th Century BC was made up of only around 30,000 eligible voters. (The vast majority of Athenian society was comprised of slaves without civil rights; women also could not vote or own property.) With just 30,000 participants, Athens could be governed by direct democracy. Adult Athenian men did not elect representatives to vote on their behalf, but voted on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Today's average national democracy, in comparison, attempts to govern over 30 million individuals. The federal government of India, the world's most populous democracy, governs over one billion citizens. It is simply neither practical nor possible for each of those billion voters to take part in every legislative decision.

map of representative democracies

Blue - Nations with bicameral legislatures.
Orange - Nations with unicameral legislatures.
Gray - No legislature.

As a result, we almost all live in representative democracies where we elect public officials to create and vote on legislation on our behalf. This layer of representation, while necessary, takes citizens away from the decision making process. For decades broadcast media provided just about the only link between citizens and their elected representatives, but coverage tended to focus more on the lives of the politicians and less on the issues they vote on. Over the past five years a new generation of websites have sprouted up which combine information from parliamentary websites with social media tools in order to give citizens more information and clarity about the profile and activities of their representatives, and to become more active in the legislative process.

You can see all of the parliamentary informatics projects we reviewed at the Technology for Transparency Network by clicking on the “parliament” filter underneath the map interface.

Parliamentary Informatics

The first such website we reviewed is Vota Inteligente, a project of the Smart Citizen Foundation in Santiago, Chile. Like most of the parliamentary informatics websites we documented, Vota Inteligente “scrapes data” from the websites of Chile's Senate and House of Deputies in order to more effectively gather and present information about representatives, political parties, and legislative bills. Using the information gathered by the Vota Inteligente team, you are able to compare congressional terms by party, gender, age, and incumbency. There is also a section called “Informed Citizen” which provides contextualization and analysis of the large flow of information that is added to the website every week. The website's archive presents access to all collected data and documents. It includes a glossary, source list, document library, multimedia library, and collection of legal and legislative documents.

Vota Inteligente depends on Facebook and Twitter to sustain interaction with its users. The team has also started a “webinar” series where invited guests use streaming video to present a particular topic to anyone who shows interest. All of this information and interaction comes at the cost of a serious time investment. I had the opportunity to visit the Vota Inteligente headquarters, a comfortable two-story house in residential Santiago, which was buzzing with eager volunteers who were adding information to the database and discussing how to improve the functionality of the website. While their enthusiasm and hard work was infectious, one must wonder if it is sustainable.

Unlike the dozens of volunteers that Vota Inteligente has managed to attract, KohoVolit.eu relies on the dedicated work of just two individuals who have managed to create a directory of profiles about every representative in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It even includes fairly extensive information about the activities of representatives (MEP's) of the European Union. In our interview, project founder Michal Skop emphasized that the sustainability of parliamentary informatics websites depends on their level of automation. Any such website that depends heavily on human labor to input and organize information, Skop says, is likely to run out of steam. By taking government data and automating its presentation and distribution in new ways, the participants of such projects can spend more time on adding much-needed contextualization and analysis to the stream of information.

Automation, however, depends on the availability of properly structured, open government data that programmers can easily import and manipulate. Brazilian political scientist and co-founder of Congresso Aberto, César Zucco, says that the current transaction costs of seeking out congressional data across multiple websites in Brazil is so high that he and his colleague Eduardo Leoni have not been able to analyze any of the data they have collected. They are now waiting for the Brazilian government to implement the proposed Government Information Law, which should mandate government agencies to make official data available in structured formats that can be put to use by platforms like Congresso Aberto. Congresso Aberto was modeled on two other, similar websites: Open Congress (United States) and Vote Watch (European Union). It contains: 1) data and analysis about Brazilian Congress such as voting records and attendance; 2) profiles and information about representatives; 3) information about Brazilian political parties; and 4) proposed bills and legislation. The information comes from the official websites of Brazil's Congress, but it is not yet as timely and granular as Zucco and Leoni would like.

In fact, in terms of sustaining the movement of open parliamentary data, a strong argument could be made that activists should first work on implementing satisfactory government information laws - along the lines of the Open Government Directive in the United States - before working on information management systems to help bring that information to more citizens. Of course, it doesn't have to be one or the other, but analyzing and communicating the information does depend on having access to it.

In Kenya, Mzalendo is another platform which came into existence precisely because of the lack of official data from parliament. Ory Okolloh and her colleague Marc launched the project at the end of 2005 after the website for Kenya's Parliament was shut down following protests by some MPs who were embarrassed about having heir CVs published online. Kenya's parliament website is now back online - and much improved since its former 2005 incarnation - but Ory and Mark feel that they still have an important role to play in using online tools to hold Kenyan MPs more accountable. According to Mzalendo, the MP profile pages of the official Parliament website “are not working and the Hansards are still in pdf and not xml format, which makes them hard to repurpose.” The new (though not yet launched) version of Mzalendo, on the other hand, promises much more information and interaction. The Mzalendo blog has launched a new section called “Mzalendo Vox Pop” where guest contributors “discuss issues affecting their constituency in more detail.” Okolloh hopes that by the 2012 general election Mzalendo will have enough content to produce voter cheat sheets which rank incumbents by their participation and performance in parliament. The idea is to hand them out to voters without internet access who otherwise wouldn't be able to take advantage of the content from Mzalendo to make a more informed vote. “It’s one thing to tell people to make informed decisions, but that’s difficult when there is no information.” Still, like most of these sites, there are concerns about Mzalendo's sustainability. “We thought we could be sustained by volunteers, but that clearly is not working,” says Okolloh. “We think we are onto something good and potentially powerful, but how to build on it without becoming an NGO is a challenge.”

A hybrid model, which depends on volunteer students, but is able to count on the institutional support of the University of the Andes, is Congreso Visible in Colombia. As the websites of both Colombia's Senate and House of Representatives are hopelessly out of date, Congreso Visible depends entirely on students of the political science department of the University of the Andes to manually input the data about representatives, political parties, and legislative activity. There is also a useful section called the “Agora” that provides context, investigative reporting, and opinion pieces. Each quarter they publish a printed review of activity that took place on the website in order to distribute it to offline readers. As of today the website includes 1858 profiles of members of the Congress and aspiring candidates, 5614 legislative documents and almost 1144 voting records. Of all the parliamentary informatics websites we reviewed, Congreso Visible has the cleanest presentation, and might also have the most thorough inventory of information. It takes advantage of Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to encourage interaction with the content published on the site. Colombia's Congress has contacted the Congreso Visible team to learn how to develop a similar website for the official Senate and House of Representatives domains. While the Colombian Congress should be applauded for seeking out expertise on how to modernize its information systems, this does beg the question, what will be the use of Congreso Visible if the Congress itself uses the exact same platform?

Most of the parliamentary informatics websites we reviewed seek to provide readers with more information about their representatives and how they vote. Others are more pro-active in encouraging citizens to think about issues rather than individuals. Vote na Web (”Vote on the Web”) is a tool developed by WebCitizen, which was launched in November 2009 at TEDx São Paulo. Using a clear interface, congressional bills are translated into simple language with clearly defined context and consequences. Beyond just explaining legislative bills in everyday language that most citizens can understand, the interface also encourages users to vote on the bills themselves, and then compare their votes with other users and with the politicians. So far most bills have only attracted between 10 - 500 votes, but if the number of users scales up, Vote na Web will provide an excellent visualization of just how representative Brazilian politicians are in their voting histories. KohoVolit.eu has also developed a number of online and offline applications to compare citizens' votes with those of elected officials.

500 sobre 500 (”500 for 500″) also encourages more pro-active interaction by creating profiles of all 500 representatives of Mexico's House of Deputies, and then asking users to adopt each candidate and follow a list of updated “challenges”. The project ends at the end of the month.

Recommendations:

What stood out as most surprising throughout our documentation of all of these projects is that each one wrote an extensive amount of code to develop distinct platforms even though nearly all of the platforms follow the same basic structure: 1) profiles of representatives with voting records, 2) legislative bills, 3) profiles of political parties, 4) a section for context and analysis. We recommend that donors convene a meeting of technologists working on parliamentary informatics websites to agree on a single platform that can be used in all representative democracies. They should collectively develop and release the Ushahidi-equivalent for parliamentary informatics. So far OpenCongress, which is written with Ruby on Rails, backed by a PostgreSQL database and Solr full-text indexing, seems like the best bet. However, MySociety's TheyWorkForYou platform, written mostly in PHP, is another strong contender, especially for Commonwealth parliamentary systems that use a Hansard. The Congreso Visible platform, which was developed by Monoku and written in Django and jQuery is also worth further exploration, as is the Vota Inteligente platform, which is written in PHP.

There is a lack of research comparing the practices and effects of parliamentary informatics websites. Arthur Edwards’ 2006 paper “Facilitating the monitorial voter: retrospective voter information websites in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands” is one of the few such studies, but it is by now outdated and limited in scope. Of specific value would be a quantified, comparative study of web analytics from each website. Where do visitors come from? What type of information are they seeking? Where do they spend most of their time? What parts of the website are frequently ignored? All of these questions can be answered with closer research into the web analytics of each website.

The majority of the projects we reviewed took advantage of social media services and relationships with their national blogospheres to distribute information and analysis from the website. We saw less evidence of collaboration, however, with civil society organizations and mainstream media institutions. A notable exception is Vota Inteligente, which has established an impressive network of like-minded national, regional, and international civil society organizations. They have also collaborated closely with mainstream media, such as CNN en Español to spread awareness and put pressure on politicians.

We recommend to project leaders that they thoroughly study search engine optimization and apply its strategies to their website development. Most users will likely arrive to their websites by searching Google for information related to a particular politician or keywords related to a legislative bill. It is crucial that the relevant page is among the first ten search results.

We recommend to project leaders that they work with local newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, and mobile phone service providers to distribute information and analysis from their websites to offline readers. Other strategies for offline distribution include Congreso Visible's model of quarterly reports and Mzalendo's plans for non-partisan voter pamphlets to be distributed before elections. We recommend that project leaders work in partnership with high school teachers to develop lesson plans that integrate these platforms into school curricula so that students understand the workings of their government from an information perspective. We also recommend to project leaders that in addition to scraping data from official parliamentary websites, they also take advantage of the wealth of contextual information found on sites like Open CRS, Parlio, and the National Congress Library of Chile in order to give a more thorough overview of how congress works.

We recommend to the Global Centre for ICT in Parliament that they reach out to technologists and administrators of parliamentary informatics websites to involve them in discussions and agreements related to XML and open standards in parliament. The 14-17 September 2010 Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania could be one potential venue to convene such a discussion.

We recommend to project leaders that they follow the strategy of Congreso Visible and partner with local universities to take advantage of eager students who can help input data into the system, and then analyze and distribute that information. We recommend to donors and universities that they facilitate more conversation between researchers of open government data and technologists working on parliamentary informatics websites.

We recommend to governments that they seek out the opinion of open government activists and technologists when deciding how to publish information online, and what information should be made available.

Thanks to Renata Avila for her contributions to this piece.

May 17 2010

Technology for Transparency Review, Part III

By David Sasaki

Throughout our mapping and analysis of the 36 case studies on the Technology for Transparency Network we have tended to group projects by their geographic region. This is in large part because our team of researchers and research reviewers were hired explicitly to map and evaluate technology projects that promote transparency and accountability in the regions were they are based. However, when one steps back to take in all of the projects from a global perspective, it becomes readily apparent that there are thematic and strategic categories which apply across regions. This week's posts aim to tease out some of those trends and offer constructive criticism and concrete recommendations to funders, project leads, and researchers as to how such projects can become more effective, efficient, and sustainable.

On the Technology for Transparency Network platform we have organized case studies and project listings into ten different categories: budget monitoring, civic complaints, election monitoring, parliament informatics, extractive industries, private sector transparency, advocacy, crime, local government, and aid transparency. You can sort through each of the ten categories by clicking on the filters beneath our map interface. If you have suggestions for other categories that we should be tracking, please leave a comment below.

Today's post will focus on two of the largest categories we reviewed - budget and election monitoring.

Budget Monitoring

Monitoring the budgets of local and national governments is a key instrument in the toolkit of any accountability activist. Active budget monitoring can both prevent and expose corruption. As an example, despite protests from privacy activists, the Mexican government decided to publish the salaries of elected officials. (At the time, Mexican governors were among the highest paid in the world.) The reasoning is that any elected official who is clearly spending more than his/her salary permits should be scrutinized closely to determine where that money is coming from, and whether it is linked to political misbehavior.

Budget monitoring can also lead to improved public services and infrastructure. For example, in the United States the government recently passed the largest economic stimulus program in the country's history. To track how that money was spent the government created Recovery.gov while ProPubica created Eye on the Stimulus, which also tracks how the money is spent. Kenya had its own stimulus program, called the Constituency Development Fund, which started in 2003 as a way to fund local governments to improve their infrastructure and services. Budget Tracking Tool is a way to see how that money is being spent and to leave comments to report on the progress of those projects. However, so far few people seem to use the tool, and even fewer comment on the progress of the development projects in their constituency.

In order to effectively monitor and evaluate any budget, the data must be available in a format which allows for analysis in a spreadsheet or database program. The information should be both granular, in order to evaluate as many variables as possible, and timely, in order to expose corruption and inefficiencies before it is too late. Unfortunately, most governments that do publicly release their budget information do so using Adobe's PDF format, which doesn't allow for data analysis. As Noam Hoffstater and Alon Padan of Our Budget pointed out in our interview, the accounting offices of governments obviously have their budget information in spreadsheet format, but they purposely publish it as a PDF document in order to discourage closer scrutiny.

Our Budget uses OCR technology to create an Excel spreadsheet version of the Tel Aviv municipal budget. Volunteers go over and check every entry, and then they make visualizations and graphs of how the municipality is spending taxpayers' money. Importantly, while they have done this for two years running, in the end they decided that litigation (demanding that the municipality release the budget in spreadsheet format) was a better strategy than time-consuming, technological solutions.

Dinero y Politica uses a similar strategy to create more information about campaign financing in Argentinian elections so that voters can make fully informed choices. In Argentina, political parties must disclose all of the campaign contributions they received at least ten days before the election. But, once again, they only have to disclose those numbers in a PDF report, which, doesn't allow citizens analyze the data to see relationships between political interests and politicians. So the Dinery y Politica team has created an interactive database which maps donations and creates visualizations of which parties receive donations from which groups, unions, and companies.

Recommendations:

Both Our Budget and Dinero y Política use Many Eyes to visualize the data they collect. We recommend that other budget monitoring activists learn how to use Many Eyes and Many Eyes Wikified in order to dynamically visualize budget information. Google's Fusion Tables is another powerful online tool to both store and visualize complex information related to public budgets.

The information collected and analyzed from all three projects does not seem to be exploited well by civil society organizations, journalists, or bloggers in the countries where they are based. We recommend to project leaders that they do more outreach to train journalists, activists, and bloggers how to use the tools they have developed. A sample gallery of effective ways their information has been used could help inspire others to build on that work.

A number of traditional civil society organizations have been working in the realm of budget monitoring and open budgets for quite some time. The International Budget Partnership has a very useful world map which links to country profiles with related information and organizations working on budget monitoring. We recommend to donors that they support an international event that brings together technologists and budget monitoring activists to share best practices and strategies regarding the use of modern technology and information management systems to improve the efficiency of budget monitoring. This event should be followed by a three-day intense “book sprint” which leads to a open licensed, freely accessible book that explains the technical steps in order to: 1) extract financial information from PDF documents using OCR technology, 2) store budget information in structured, public databases, 3) verify and cross-reference information, 4) analyze and evaluate data using Many Eyes and Google Fusion Tables, and 5) use resulting findings and conclusions to partner with media, bloggers, civil society and government to seek greater accountability.

Following the publication of such a book - and its translation into relevant languages - we recommend that donors support barcamp-style events at the national level that bring together technologists, civil society organizations, government officials, investigative journalists, and bloggers to focus specifically on budget monitoring.

Finally, we recommend that budget monitoring platforms partner with accounting, statistics, and computer science professors at local universities so that the students of their classes can help improve the governance of their country while learning new skills and techniques.

Election Monitoring

Like budget monitoring, election observation is an activity of government accountability and transparency with a long history. According to Wikipedia, it dates back to at least to the 1866 plebiscite of Moldavia and Wallachia, which led to modern Romania. In more recent times, election monitoring has tended to focus on countries with weak democracies or democracies in transition, and has been organized by international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Council of Europe and the African Union. Major international NGOs like the Carter Center, the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, the National Democratic Institute, and the European Network for Election Monitoring have also become increasingly active, and often partner with local NGO's to take advantage of established national networks.

As if all of those many players weren't enough, a new generation of election monitoring websites now ask ordinary citizens to also become election observers by using their cell phones to report any voting irregularities they may encounter. If all goes to plan, such reports are then verified, categorized, and placed on a publicly accessible map.

One such project that we did not document because we felt that it has been discussed sufficiently in both mainstream and citizen media is Vote Report India. In fact, co-founder Gaurav Mishra has joked that perhaps there were more articles about the project than reports submitted to the platform. Mishra has also written an excellent and candid evaluation of the project, which lists successes, failures, and - most importantly - lessons learned for the next incarnation of the platform for the 2014 Indian elections.

Last month saw the first multiparty election to take place in Sudan in over 20 years. Sudan Vote Monitor is one of many Ushahidi-based websites we reviewed that allow voters to report irregularities by submitting text messages which are then verified by a partner NGO and placed on a map. To understand the context behind Sudan Vote Monitor and the difficulty in implementing a technology project in Sudan, I highly recommend Rebekah Heacock's post, “Sudan: Is ICT all it's cracked up to be?” Most of the attention given to the initiative during the election itself focused on the fact that the site was temporarily blocked by the government. Less reported was the website's impact on ensuring credible elections. According to the website itself, 257 reports of voting irregularities were received. In a followup interview with Heacock, project coordinator Fareed Zein says that number is probably somewhere between 300 - 500 if you count all SMS reports, which have yet to be added to the system. But few, if any, of these reports have been verified, and there has been no official response to any of the reports. Still, Zein suggests that the objective of this first implementation was simply to create more information, rather than necessarily holding anyone accountable:

In previous elections it was all a closed door affair — nobody knew exactly what went on on the ground. The intention of this was to be able to get the information out to the public, internally and externally, about what's going on. Just being able to get the word out was enough for us. We didn't set out to try to urge anybody to take any specific action. Our mission was to get the information out and then let people judge and act for themselves.

Zein says it is likely that Sudan Vote Monitor will be used again during the January 2011 Southern Sudanese independence referendum.

Like Vote Report India and Sudan Vote Monitor, Cuidemos el Voto is another national election monitoring platform that uses Ushahidi. Co-founder Oscar Salazar notes that, while Mexico transitioned to multiparty democracy in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox, vote buying and conditional cash transfer programs are still corrupting the democratic process. Cuidemos el Voto managed to achieve something important that other, similar projects lacked: support and endorsement from an official government body, in this case, Mexico's Special Prosecutor's Office. Still, that endorsement did not apparently lead to any sort of accountability. For example, on July 5, 2009 someone reported that in Puebla they were offering 500 pesos to vote for the PAN party. But this report wasn't verified and we don't see any kind of followup. For such election monitoring projects to make an impact in terms of accountability, they need the staff and resources to verify all reports and ensure that the proper government body responds. Or, perhaps more appropriately, they must partner with other organizations who can invest in the long haul of followup work. It could even be the perfect semester-length project for a political science graduate-level class.

The African Elections Project differs slightly from other election monitoring projects we reviewed in that 1) it doesn't use Ushahidi and 2) it focuses on multiple countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The project, funded by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, uses new media tools to produce and disseminate more information about elections in ten African countries including Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Niger, Guinea, Mozambique, Mauritania and Togo. Their hope is that more watchful eyes reporting on the electoral process will help prevent and expose vote fraud, and encourage clean elections. However, most of the countries where they work have broadband penetration levels between five and ten percent. Until there is greater connectivity, the impact of an online project like African Elections Project is inherently circumscribed, despite its relatively large budget.

VoteReport PH is the last Ushahidi-based election monitoring initiative we reviewed. Most of these projects were only attract the participation of very few users because there was not broad awareness that the websites exist at all. VoteReport PH is different in that its team spent six months prior to the election going around the country and giving voter education classes about how to use automated voting machines (which were used for the first time), and simultaneously, how to submit reports to VoteReporter PH by sending text messages. Such on-the-ground outreach work is necessary in order to create more awareness about citizen election monitoring platforms. In all, 654 reports of voting irregularities were submitted. For example, at 1 p.m. on May 10 “massive vote buying” was reported by an anonymous contributor via text message. We are told that the report was verified, but there is no further detail on what constitutes verification, or if anything was done to follow up on the report. One very useful strategy by the VoteReportPH team was to write a separate blog post highlighting the most urgent reports of vote fraud. They also published a helpful blog post summarizing some of their early experiences and conclusions. I recommend Mong Palatino's overview, “Monitoring Philippine Elections through Social Media“, to get a better idea of how Twitter and blogging played a distributed role in monitoring the Philippine elections.

Though Ushahidi was created to map reports of violence that occurred after Kenya's 2007 election, it was quickly adapted to monitor elections themselves. In addition to the above-mentioned case studies, Ushahidi was also used to map voting irregularities in Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Ushahidi implementations have already been set up for Colombia's presidential election later this month, the Puebla municipal elections in July, and Brazil's general election in October.

Recommendations:

We recommend to project implementers that they plan at least one year ahead of the elections they will monitor. In addition to the technical challenges of implementing and localizing the Ushahidi platform, they must also concentrate on outreach efforts to 1) establish an SMS shortcode, 2) hold on-the-ground training workshops, 3) partner with relevant civil society organizations, and 4) partner with media organizations to spread awareness. Such projects should also seek funding to cover the expenses of marketing the project via billboards, radio commercials, posters, and leaflets. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, election monitoring platforms should establish strong relationships with the governing electoral commission in order to agree upon a protocol for verifying and acting on reports of vote fraud. Without a signed agreement in place, the project is unlikely to make a concrete impact toward greater accountability and credibility of elections.

We recommend that online election monitoring projects partner with students at universities to verify and follow up on all submitted reports, similar to how Tufts University students worked to verify reports submitted to the Ushahidi implementation for the Haiti earthquake.

We recommend to funders that they fund specific election-related plugins that make Ushahidi a more functional platform for election monitoring. Oscar Salazar of Cuidemos el Voto has noted that Ushahidi lacks certain features for election monitoring:

Ushahidi's main design was to provide a common pool of reports. So if I started giving administrative access to everyone, everyone will see the same pools . What happen's if two NGOs that are associated with two different political parties get access to the same pool and start approving or disapproving the reports? I don't want everyone to have access to the same pool. i want to give special accounts to different NGOs, where they see only their own reports plus the citizen reports. Ushahidi wasnt designed for a lot of NGOs working together. So we are tweaking it for these local elections to make it work in this way.

The tweaks by the Cuidemos el Voto team should be packaged into a plugin that can be shared with other election monitoring initiatives.

We recommend to the Ushahidi team and to their funders, that increased emphasis be placed on documentation, especially in regard to best practices regarding election monitoring. Patrick Meier has written an introductory primer and Erik Hersman has made a forum posting to compare common election-related categories, but there is still a lack of needed documentation for any activist wanting to use Ushahidi to monitor elections. We suggest that Ushahidi aspire to a documentation resource as thorough and easily accessible as WordPress' Codex.

We recommend that researchers do both more longitudinal and comparative research in order to better understand the impact and methodology of online, citizen election monitoring websites. How does verification compare across projects? What strategies bring about accountability? How do you increase the signal to noise ratio for submitted reports? How do you best visualize reports to inspire action? What are obstacles to collaboration with traditional election monitoring organizations? What are the pros and cons of anonymity in citizen election reporting? These are just a few open-ended questions that require more research.

Finally, we recommend that multilateral and civil society organizations focused on election monitoring organize an international event to bring together the coordinators and technologists behind the various online election monitoring websites we have listed above to share experiences and prepare improved documentation for future implementations. This has already happened at the regional level in East Africa, which led to calls for a “Tech Election Monitoring Toolbox”, but it should also happen at the international level to share skills, techniques, resources, and future plans across distinct tech communities.

In the next post we will summarize and offer our recommendations related to more categories of case studies from the Technology for Transparency Network.

May 15 2010

The Aid Transparency Movement

By David Sasaki

Let's say, hypothetically speaking, that you're the newly elected leader of one of the least developed countries in the world and you are trying to prioritize your government's spending on development projects and social issues. In fact, let's say that you are the incoming president of Guinea-Bissau, a West African country just south of Senegal with a population of 1.6 million and an estimated GDP per capita of somewhere between $500 - $1000. Your entire country's GDP is just $1.72 billion and, as of 2002, an estimated 40% of that money comes directly from foreign aid agencies. The United Nations has given US$ 18.3 million to supplement government salaries, Portugal has pledged 42 million euros in aid over the next three years. Japan has granted US$9.6 million in financial aid to help achieve a literacy program. And that's all small change compared to the substantial funding that comes from USAID, DFID, the European Commission, and the World Bank.

As the incoming president you are aware of the issues facing your country. The agricultural sector needs to be industrialized to boost productivity. Greater security must be put into place for infrastructural projects to continue unimpeded. Technical and scientific education must improve to raise a generation of engineers who can exploit the country's offshore oil reserves. The country's health system must improve to raise life expectancy above 50 years, and to contribute to a more productive work force. What you are not aware of - what, in fact, there is no way for you to track - is exactly how much money is pouring into your country from donors, where it goes, and how effective its impact has been. This information is unavailable because donors are notoriously opaque about their funding even while they push for greater transparency in the countries where they work.

In an excellent three-page policy briefing titled “Greater aid transparency: crucial for aid effectiveness,” Sam Moon and Tim Williamson show how a lack of aid transparency can reduce the ability of taxpayers to hold their governments accountable because it is unclear which projects are government-funded and which are donor-funded. A lack of aid transparency also leads to a lack of government budget transparency, the authors argue. “Without transparency, discrepancies between aid received and aid spent is hard to measure, and corruption is harder to track and eliminate.” It was this basic fact that led Peter Eigen to leave his position as the director of the World Bank Office for East Africa and found Transparency International:

A lack of aid transparency also impedes collaboration among grantee projects. In our mapping of “technology for transparency” case studies we came across several projects that were funded by the same donor, but were unaware of the existence of each other until we made the introduction. A simple list of grantee projects by region and topic would go a long way toward encouraging collaboration and preventing duplication.

Lastly, there is a moral argument behind the idea that funders aiming to promote more accountability through transparency should also encourage greater accountability of their own work by publishing more information about their spending and activities.

Lack of Information Leads to Misinformation

The inability of national governments to take stock of the incoming flow of aid money into their countries is just one of the negative consequences that arise from the lack of aid transparency; it also leads to misinformation about the amount and effectiveness of philanthropy and aid development. According to a survey by the Borgen Project, Americans guess, on average, that 24% of our federal budget goes to development assistance. In fact, it is less than one percent. That is about 25 cents per day for each American. Furthermore, less than half of aid from the United States goes to the poorest countries; the largest recipients are strategic allies such as Egypt, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such misinformation about how - and how much - development assistance is used has contributed to a popular backlash, led in the mainstream media by Dambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly. At the first - and regrettably only - TED Africa conference in 2007, the “Cheetah Generation” of young African leaders called for “trade not aid” to increase Africa's development. Popular rhetoric says that billions of dollars in development assistance have not accomplished a thing, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. But such hyperbole depends on the fact that we simply don't know where aid money goes, how it is spent, and what the results are. Such information tends to stay in the filing cabinets of each individual funder. We simply can't measure aid effectiveness without aid transparency.

Working Toward Aid Transparency

The good news: we have reached the point where there is clear agreement that we need to work toward greater aid transparency. The challenge and disagreement now lie in how. For example, what is the ideal level of granularity for financial information regarding grants? Does publishing the salaries of individual employees violate their privacy? How timely should information be made available? What format should it be published in? How is information across various funders easily accessed, aggregated, and understood? What are the most efficient processes to integrate the publication of information with accounting from the funder's side and budgeting from the recipient country's side? Should future budget information be made available in addition to past investments and current spending?

These are difficult questions and their difficulty probably lies more in how each institution manages their record keeping than ideological differences related to privacy and power. Fortunately, a number of new initiatives are underway to help develop standards around aid transparency. Foremost among them is the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a “temporary coalition of donor governments, governments of developing countries and NGOs” that was formed at the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action, which grew out of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. According to its website, “IATI’s role is to develop consistent and coherent international standards for the way donors report information about aid spending.” They publish a bi-monthly newsletter, which unfortunately is only available in the proprietary Microsoft Word format. Hopefully this does not reflect their thinking on how aid-related information should be published.

In November 2008 the steering committee of the International Aid Transparency Initiative began what was meant to be an 18-month process to define:

  • A common, standard format and set of definitions for the publication of aid information
  • A code of conduct for signatories of the initiative

According to their latest newsletter, they now aim to reach an agreement on what data should be published by July, with implementation and the agreed-upon code of conduct beginning in December.

Publish What You Fund is an initiative of Tiri that aims to spread awareness about the importance of aid transparency, and to put pressure on the United States, the European Union, and the World Bank to meet specific transparency targets.

If all goes well the internet should be flooded with information from donors about their spending and activities by early next year. But how to manage the torrent of information? How to make sense of it? How to create mechanisms so that greater aid transparency actually leads to more accountability of grantee projects, government recipients, and the funders themselves?

The Role of Technology in Aid Transparency

Some innovative projects have already been developed to help visualize development assistance. The Ujima Project takes data from USAspending.gov, the United States Department of Justice, the US Department of State, the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and UK's Department for International Development to visualize aid flows, weapon sales, and lobbying expenses at the country level throughout Africa. It is managed by the Great Lakes Media Institute in Rwanda and the website was developed by Appfrica, a Uganda-based web development firm.

Aidinfo.org is a project of Development Initiatives to research the current supply of and demand for information related to aid. A recent blog post admits that several of the team's assumptions at the outset of the project have been challenged during their subsequent research, “most notably the idea that if more aid information is made available, people will use it.” They have also found that “donors publish a lot more information than some of us thought, it’s just not in a format that’s useful for most users. In particular it’s often not timely or comparable.” Most importantly, they stress that information related to “aid and other resources flowing from donor countries” needs to be linked to “the wider accountability movement in recipient countries where most stakeholders are interested in transparency of the whole budget.” In other words, from the perspective of an accountability activist in Kenya, the aid-related statistics from the Ujima Project are just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Other pieces include oversight of the Constituency Development Fund, extractive industries , and an audit of the Ministry of Finance.

aid information challenge

Programmers working together at the Aid Information Challenge in London

That doesn't make aid transparency any less important, only more complicated. Fortunately, a burgeoning community of researchers, programmers, and activists are working together online - and offline at informal barcamps - to develop tools and techniques to overcome the many obstacles standing in the way of effective aid transparency. March and April were especially busy months for the aid transparency community. It all began on March 8 when students from the College of William & Mary, Georgetown University and George Washington University were given a preview of the AidData Portal, which launched publicly later that month. A week later the first Aid Information Challenge brought programmers and aid agencies together to think strategically about how to use open data to make aid more effective. They have linked to related projects that are already in development, and listed a set of recommendations. On March 22nd the Aid Transparency and Development Finance conference got started in Oxford, bringing together academics, think tanks, and development agencies to discuss aid transparency with a focus on data. The final day included the public launch of the AidData.org portal, the most comprehensive of its kind, and a hands-on workshop on how to use it. Two weeks later and the first UK-based Aid Information Challenge took place at the Guardian newspaper offices in London. They have listed a number of project ideas and prototypes. The Aid Information Challenge website promises future events in other countries. Last month the United Arab Emirates' Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid held its own training workshop on aid transparency and accountability. Around the same time the World Bank announced that it had made publicly available all of its global development and finance indicators. Other initiatives aiming to bring transparency to philanthropy and development assistance include the Latin America Donor Index, Glasspockets, and Grantsfire.

The momentum of the aid transparency movement is palpable, but without greater coordination and aggregation, so much transparency will lead to more confusion than clarity. Raw data must be presented in ways that are easy to understand, and that tie directly to accountability initiatives at the local and national level in each country. Before we overwhelm the internet with information we need to facilitate the lines of communication to make use of it.

May 05 2010

Technology for Transparency in China

By Carrie Yang

In China, transparency, accountability and civic engagement are all politically sensitive issues. The root of the tension can date back to the Cultural Revolution, when people were told to say what the government, or more exactly, the Communist Party of China (CCP), expected to hear. Those who said what they really thought, or questioned the CCP’s acts, were often jailed or worse.

After China’s period of economic reform beginning in 1978, political reform and freedom of speech were brought back to the agenda. In 1987, the 13rd National People’s Congress brought up the idea of “supervision by public opinion,” and specified that “major situations should be known by the people; major questions should be discussed by people.” (Wu Guoguang, 1997) Emphasis on political transparency reached its historical peak in modern Chinese history.

The 1989 the Tiananmen Incident was a turning point for China's policy making about the control of public discourse. The CCP used tanks to “clear up” Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of thousands of students demonstrated for political reform to eradicate government corruption and promote democracy and transparency. The international response was enormous, but in China any mention of the incident was banned. On the Internet, keywords such as “July 4th”, “6.4″, and others were all automatically filtered from websites. It is common that young people today in China have no clue about the incident at all.

Article 44 of the August 2007 Emergency Response Law offers a small opportunity for improvement because there is no explicit restriction on what the media must do in emergency incidents, compared to past warnings by officials that media should be “helpful, not troublesome.” Also, from a legal perspective, according to Article 41 of the Chinese Constitution, citizens are entitled to not only know what is actually happening, but also to “criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary.” The constitution also specifies that citizens are entitled to demonstrate and protest. However, these civil rights were seldom practiced due to the strict political control enforced by the government. In short, the absence of an independent institution for the trial of laws that go against the constitution means that the articles themselves are not enforced.

Transparency and Traditional Media

The press was supposed supervise the state. However, after the Tiananmen incident, China’s media system characterized by a low level of autonomy, high government intervention, strong institutional continuity, and no correlation with any clear pattern of democratization. (Colin Sparks, 2007) He Zhou has referred to the role of Chinese media as “Party Inc.” In other words, the role of the media has changed from a propaganda machine in the age of the Cultural Revolution to the Chinese Communist Party's PR agent, whose major task is to maintain a positive image of the party. Though most journalists take pride in investigating watchdog stories that also reveal the negative side, they generally choose less controversial topics like consumer culture or environmental protection. No core issue that involves political accountability or the election process can be touched. (Zhou He,2006) The Party, through the Central Propaganda Department and its local branches at all levels, still control mass media content in great detail. It renders public distrust against the government, but there’s still no mechanism for citizens to dissent. In a nutshell, the priority of the CCP is to “maintain a stable society.” Any challenge from the citizens is basically “harmonized,” or filtered from access. Since citizens cannot receive the real and timely information from mass media, new media have become increasingly important in China.

Transparency and New Media

In recent years increased participation and communication, two basic aspects of transparency, have taken place on new media platforms. (Yang Guobin 2009) The primary form of netizen participation is online protest and dissent, most commonly in the form of replying in comment and forum threads. There are times that online activities are accompanied by offline activities. Relying on the online community platform, these kinds of activities are spontaneous and loosely organized, but they can have influence not only on online discourse, but also on offline public discourse and government policies. Social problems such as the widening divide between the rich and the poor; corruption; environmental pollution; changes in cultural values, etc. are reflected in the online discussions. (Yang, Guobin, 2000) The rise of an urban middle class is particularly important in the new online activism. The urban middle class is more confident in the aspect of culture, and has more confidence in both domestic and international media than the working class. (Du Junfei, Wen Yunchao, 1999) This finding is also reflected in the case studies of technology for transparency projects I documented. Three of the four founders were educated abroad (including Hong Kong), and one is a senior manager at an IT firm.

On the other hand, new media also gives netizens new channels to break through the Chinese government’s information censorship, thus empowering Chinese netizens to hear voices other than those of the “Party Inc.” (Hu Yong, 2008) Online it is hard to draw a fine line between the private and public sphere. Nevertheless, in China, a country with an under-developed public sphere, the Internet has had a major impact on unraveling the information monopoly, and creating a space for other voices. No media can change deeply rooted, non-democratic behaviors over night, but for many Chinese the Internet has brought political discourse into citizens’ daily life, and in some instances has changed citizens’ perspective toward the control of information, freedom, and creativity.

In response to the influence of the Internet, the government has updated its online censorship tactics. Search engines at home (Baidu) or abroad (Google) have conformed to filter out search results with personal information of national leaders and keywords related to politically sensitive issues. (Google.cn has since migrated to Hong Kong.) A project to install monitoring softwares (adult content and political sensitive content) called Green Dam, Youth Escort was proposed to be installed on every PC in China in 2009. The Great Firewall blocks numerous websites from Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad that may contain politically sensitive content, or that facilitates discourse of about such topic. This includes platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and news sites like Apple Daily. In the end of 2009, the government released a list of websites in China that do not have the “license” to run multi-media content. Countless websites did not survive this “policy adjustment,” and many activist blogswere shut down or erased from the blogging platform. The Wu Mao party (50 cent) part has been observed actively leaving patriotic comments in forums, blogs, and portal sites. It seems that China’s censorship is so powerful that it has managed to control what was thought of as the uncontrollable Internet.

Regulations about Civil Associations in China

For a project to promote transparency, accountability and civic engagement, forming civil society organizations, or NGO's, should be an effective way to start the operation. However, in China, such organizations are taboo. Between China’s Reform in 1978 and the student movement in 1989, there were neither legal policies nor official bureaus to regulate civil society organizations in China. Nonetheless, at the peak of the student movement in 1989, the government began considering the creation of a regulatory system to regulate civil society organizations. The Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) was appointed to be responsible of managing civil organzations and NPOs (Non Profit Organizations). These organizations, or associations, were required to register, and they could not register with the MCA unless they were under the supervision of government or party agencies.

In 1996, Jiang Zemin strengthened the system by bringing in more detailed and comprehensive regulations. Nevertheless, many rules governing NGOs derived from the speeches of high officials or from unpublished speeches and documents that NGO leaders might not be aware of. In 1998, the CCP’s Central Bureau and the MCA even jointly issued a document that required every civil association that has three or more CCP members to establish a party branch to supervise its political behavior. As a result, most internet projects were loosely organized and can be easily claimed as “illegal” by the government and shut down.

Transparency in Hong Kong

The case in Hong Kong reflects a shrinking of the public sphere after its return to China. Hong Kong was the sanctuary for a great number of political refugees from mainland China, and the UK maintained a liberal media order when Hong Kong was a British colony. However, the transfer of sovereignty brought about two anti-democratic trends. First was transfer of media groups’ ownership and management. Many middle-class professionals moved overseas before returning. Pro-Beijing capitalists bought many critical magazines and closed them. International capitalists and overseas Chinese capitalists who have major investments in mainland China also bought several major media groups. This led to the second anti-democratic trend: self-censorship and moral bankruptcy. Beijing controls news sources from the mainland and it can decide which media group it releases news to. Moreover, the chiefs of several Hong Kong media groups have close relationship with Beijing (some of them even members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), and request that their employees voluntarily self-censor their criticism against Beijing. In conclusion, transparency in Hong Kong has been undermined due to economic-political reasons, but it has a richer legacy of criticism and watchdog journalism than that of mainland China, and the media enjoys greater autonomy about local and international issues. (Lee Chin Chuan, 2003)

The case studies

Waste Incineration and Environmental Protection:

The case study features a community forum called Jiang-Wai-Jiang. It serves as a platform to bring together residents to protest against the construction of a waste incinerator in Guangzhou, China. The construction of waste incinerators were not only reported in Guangzhou, but also many other major cities in China. In the end, because of the communities’ strong opposition, the government suspended the project. However, as soon as the threat of pollution was gone, most community members on the forum returned to silence. From a researcher’s point of view, collaboration with other anti-waste-incinerator efforts would diminish the risk for Jiang-Wai-Jiang in the future.

Inmediahk:

Inmediahk has influenced many major political issues in Hong Kong by providing independently-investigated information on its website. It aims to overcome the problem of Hong Kong's shrinking public sphere after the handover of sovereignty to mainland China. Its goal is to protect freedom of speech in Hong Kong. In the recent “Hong Kong High-Speed Railway Incident,” it provided series of insightful posts that attracted tens of thousands affected people and advocated on behalf of the most affected community, Choi Yuen Village. Though the Choi Yuen Village is still scheduled to be dismantled, the villagers were better compensated. Moreover, it aroused public attention about the negative side of the project. About 10,000 people attended the protest to support the Choi Yuen Village and to protest the High-Speed Railway construction. Inmediahk reveals mature and healthy model of online civic engagement with the ability to be self-sustained. It’s a pity that the social system in mainland China has far not copied such a model.

Investigation into the Earthquake Student Casualties:

The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 took away thousands of lives of school children. While the public mourned the loss, Ai Weiwei, a renowned blogger in China, noticed that the government never released the exact names of the victim students. He made hundreds of phone calls to inquire at all levels of government, but none of them were able to offer him the list. As a result, he organized a team to conduct a citizen investigation to compile students’ names behind the casualty numbers. But the investigation encountered impediment from all levels of governments in Sichuan Province. The team was detained, interrogated, and, at times, beaten. The names and reports that Ai Weiwei published on his blogs were all deleted by the government. It was widely suspected that the government’s corruption in the school construction projects was the leading reason why so many schools just collapsed. In the end, he managed to publish “Ai Weiwei’s list” with basic information such as names, school, class, age, etc. However, the project is heavily reliant on the celebrity effect of Ai Weiwei and his own safety has been severely threatened. This society needs more Ai Weiweis, who are fearless to confront the government and who have profile to demand accountability. We cannot afford to lose citizens like Ai Weiwei any more.

Freemoren:

Free More News (FMN) was established in September 2007 and has since become one of the most trusted online media for Chinese Internet users (as opposed to the government controlled media). Especially since March 2009, FMN's use of Twitter and other Web 2.0 platforms has enabled it to break through some of the barricades placed by Chinese government censors in order to report on big news that has happened in China, such as the Xinjiang riots, the Shishou mass protest, the Hong Kong 7.1 march, the Guangzhou protest against the waste incinerator construction, and so on. It represents the emerging civil power of the “sea turtles” (the term shares the same pronunciation with “returning from the overseas” in Chinese) in modern China. Nonetheless, it depends heavily on volunteer work, which may result in inconsistency and could be an obstacle to sustainability. Working on a sustainability model will eventually allow them to focus more of their goals as an independent source of news and information.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The four cases that I selected represent different technologies that are currently widely adopted in China: forums, websites, blogs, and micro-blogs. All of the projects in mainland China are vulnerable when facing powerful government censorship. All of the projects reflect the emerging power of the middle class and the democratic influence from outside of China. From the above observation, we should realize that democratization in China is a long process. Though China is going through a fundamental shift in how information spreads and is controlled, the power that China’s social system has regulating networked communication and the adoption of technology should never be under-estimated.

Reference:

Lindsay Stirton and Martin Lodge, “Transparency Mechanisms Building Publicness into Public Services,” 2001, 477-478
Colin Sparks, Media system in transition: Poland, Russia, China, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007
《中國猛博 ─ 新媒體時代的民間話語力量》 主編:陳婉瑩、錢鋼 , 編著:翟明磊 , 出版社:天地圖書有限公司 , 出版日期:2009年9月
Zhou He,”Chinese Communist Party Press in a Tug of War: A Political Economy Analysis of the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily”,in Power ,Money and Media,112-51, 2006
政治经济学的悖论:中港台传媒与民主变革的交光互影 李金铨 原载《二十一世纪》二○○三年六月号
Wu Guoguang, “Zhaoziyang and the Politic Reform”, Jul 1997, Parcific Century Press
Lidan Chen, Open Information System and crisis communication in China, 2006
Yang Guobin, Of Sympathy and Play: Emotional Mobilization in Online Collective Action, the Chinese Journal of Communication and Society, 2009
Yang, Guobin, The Power of the Internet in China. Citizen Activism online. Columbia University Press. 29, 2000
Du Junfei, The Communication Characteristics of the Middle Class in China; Wen Yunchao, Our Will is Optimistic: The opportunities of China’s alternative communication are in a tight conner, Jounalism Study, 99, 241-264
Hu Yong, The Rising Cacophony, personal expression and Public Discussion in the Internet Age, 2008

Technology for Transparency, Civic Engagement and Accountability in Latin America

By Renata Avila

Corruption, systematic violations of human rights and widespread poverty are closely connected. The cycle of corruption facilitates, perpetuates and institutionalizes human rights violations. Powerful and corrupt political and military groups that have systematically committed acts corruption have since covered-up or erased the evidence. Such scenarios were even more harmful in countries were perpetrators and collaborators from local and international networks escaped unpunished. As a result, today criminal networks are seduced by the same game. Secrecy plays an important role too. By denying citizens access to public information and a say in accountability, impunity continues a culture of silence. It obstructs public debate about crimes that have been committed, and their impact on development and wealth.

Declassified documents released the last decade shed a light on secret impunity agreements between governments and political leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries in the region during the seventies and eighties. From Operation Condor to the dirty wars in Central America, many covert actions affected the future of the region, undermining their rule of law, dividing societies, silencing dissenting voices, and facilitating the creation of corrupt networks and a culture of secrecy and impunity. The region, in fact, is an example of how secrecy and the discretionary use of force can harm an entire society to only benefit of few.

As Joseph Stiglitz once wrote: “Life is never black and white. Just as there is no ‘one size fits all' policy for economic development, there is no such policy for fighting corruption.” That is why different approaches to fighting corruption, improving governance, and incentivizing citizens to become active actors of change can show us different ways to tackle corruption, with the help of our new interconnected environment.

The power of documents: Projects promoting the access to public information in Latin America

Transparency and access to information empower individuals to make more informed decisions. Without access to public information and transparent practices from the private sector, civil society lacks objective input to monitor government effectiveness, spending, and public procurement. While access to information is important for everyone, it is particularly relevant for those working toward transparency and accountability. Without such access corruption flourishes. When a citizen needs to access information that is in the hands of the government, and it refuses to grant access, corrupt alternatives such as buying it or leaking it after contact with clandestine networks can replace clear institutional channels. Access to Information laws are important for a country. However, we must question premature celebration on the passage of Access to Information laws if such a tool is not used by citizens or is not effective in its objectives, as has been alleged in Guatemala. Laws and mechanisms if not used and enforced, are useless.

The ProAccesso Coalition in Venezuela aims to encourage public demand of information in the hands of the government since greater transparency is one of the most effective antidotes against corruption. ProAcceso Foundation in Chile combines its on line portal with offline legal clinics and workshops. There you can find information about access to information rights and the mechanisms to enforce them. There is also information about relevant legal cases at the local and Interamerican system and the organization's contribution to the landmark case Marcel Claude Reyes et al. v. Chile, which is important and relevant for all the Latin American states seeking a right to access public information. In Brazil, there is the Information is a right! movement. More information, More Rights in Colombia follows the regional trend, educating citizens about the important role they play by requesting public information. Mexico Informate! And the Peruvian Working Group Against Corruption coordinated online campaigns and developed tools to make it easier to request public information. Both projects also forged alliances with print media, and are working closely with journalists to provide them with the tools to inform citizens about their rights. Journalism and Access to information also works with journalist to explain how to use legal mechanisms to improve their investigative reporting.

Freedom of Information laws must be tied to issues that people care about in order to be effective. The Mexican initiatives, Rural Agricultural Subsidies and the Environmental Frontier Project in Tijuana are examples of efforts to pressure local governments to be more transparent about their spending in particular sectors. The Local Integrity initiative in Ecuador, Peru and Argentina provides a comprehensive database and peer reviewed research. CIMTRA (”citizens for transparent municipalities”) is a group of 20 NGOs working together to promote a culture of accountability among local governments.

Access to information, transparency and security issues are not incompatible, as demonstrated by Just the Facts, which provides data, analysis and links to better understand the role and motivations of U.S. assistance to the region, including military and economic aid, military and police training, arms sales, and troop deployments. It is an example on transparency in security issues.

Projects that use technology to open debate around political processes

According to the Inter American Democratic Charter, transparency in government activities, morals, responsible public administration on the part of governments, respect for social rights, and freedom of expression and of the press are essential components of democracy. It is not only credible and independent elections that matter.

Systemic corruption of political processes is far more dangerous and complex than fraudulent elections. It covers public policies, public management and procurement systems, political and administrative structures. Only a consistent effort to watch each actor and understand the weak points of each stage in such processes, and then combine different data to offer a clear picture on how the influence of lobbyist groups, criminal networks, and entrenched interests negatively affect democracy. Various projects by the Poder Ciudadano Foundation (”Citizen Power Foundation”) are helping citizens from Argentina understand the interests behind their politics and beyond elections. They also created a tool to monitor media and its role in politics. Since 90% of political campaign expenses are spent on media, it is crucial for political process to understand the relationships between media and politicians in a given country. The investigation, Mapping the Media in the Americas, provides such information and helps citizens understand the media's role in a democracy.

Civic monitoring of political processes is key to preserve them from institutional corruption. Without such engagement it is almost impossible to fix a failed system. Elección Visible in Colombia and Guatemala Visible are putting the spotlight on the selection process of six key public office nominees and appointments. The objective is to keep corruption out of all political processes, including political appointments. There are several efforts to preserve the integrity, transparency and legitimacy of the day of elections Cuidemos el Voto provides tools to monitor and map misconduct in federal and municipal elections in Mexico. Vote Bien take a similar approach in Colombia. In Chile, Vota Inteligente created an important tool to better inform voters during the last presidential elections, and they are keeping an eye on the performance of the elected president by following up on his campaign compromises.

The activities of Congress and its members is yet another important component of the democratic process to keep an eye on. Various efforts like 500/500 and Legislativo a tu alcance in Mexico, Democratic Reflection in Peru, Congreso Visible in Colombia, and Congresso Aberto in Brasil are helping citizens understand the importance of taking an active role in monitoring those who approve laws and the dynamics behind their decisions. The project Parlio, which monitors the Basque Parliament in Spain, might be an interesting model to follow because it takes the activity inside Congress to another level by providing information on why every topic discussed at parliament.

Emerging forms of civic participation and the evolving role of interconnected citizens

Movements are taking action simultaneously on several fronts, combining global and local issues in Latin America, influencing local politics, such as #internetnecesario did in Mexico or global politics, such as the Open Acta movement to demand transparency in the negotiation of international, bindind treaties. Other examples include “I am not a criminal” in Peru, and a sister project in Chile. Environmental activists are integrating their efforts online more and more to promote transparency and accountability related to extractive industries, such as mining.

Citizens are also organizing efforts to map criminal activities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and, in the case of Mexico, specific maps to report drug dealing.

What should be done?

  1. Multilateral anti corruption efforts and global standards: A global effort to foster transparency and accountability must design a system to hold wrongdoers accountable and investors aware of the consequences their investments on others' lives. New technologies allow citizens in any country to compare the behavior and monitor the statements by companies in different countries. Most of the countries with funders that are financing efforts to contribute to transparency, accountability and good governance, are not doing enough to regulate foreign corrupt practices in the region by the companies and nationals of their own countries. That is why it is important to encourage donors to respect a global, uniform standard against corruption. Legal instruments such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act should lead to a rise in anti-corruption prosecutions. As an example the World Bank has listed ineligible firms to be awarded a World Bank-financed contract for a period of time because they were found to have violated the fraud and corruption provisions of the Procurement Guidelines.
  2. Transparency for Technology Commons: Following the model of Open Educational Resources, donors and NGOs should create guidelines to incentivize shared practices, encourage the sharing of information and databases, software and models to inspire citizens across the continent to start their own efforts. Tools need to be localized and adapted for particular, local needs. Donors should incentivize the use of free software, open formats and open content to allow others build upon the tools, contents and data that have already been gathered in other contexts and places. Shared practices and information will lead to greater transparency of projects, more efficient expenditure and better understanding of the regional context. They may even allow researchers to detect patterns and follow corruption across national boundaries and areas of interests.
  3. Protecting the rights of those investigating and denouncing corruption: Journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and witnesses of serious corruption acts are under constant threat in Latin America. It is important to consider that the 1999 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders includes anti-corruption activists within the list of individuals that the UN must protect. With the increased use of the Internet and new technologies to spread information about corruption, digital surveillance and control of the Internet will likely increase too, and projects should be prepare to face new challenges. Violence against those promoting transparency and accountability is also a threat.
  4. Congruency: Donors should encourage projects aiming to map those wrongdoers, to combat secrecy in investments involving development projects and funding for development and encouraging prosecution and cross country investigations of companies, no matter how necessary for local economies they are.
  5. Accountability and visibility: Only by bringing the corrupt to court can one reestablish the rule of law, restore trust in the political institutions, and rebuild a common sense about ethical values among the citizens. Only by equality before the law can the perception of corrupted networks as untouchable be challenged. And we can use the power of ideas and the possibilities on the Internet to spread a powerful integrity message. The Internet has become a game-changing tool in the growth of anti-corruption awareness and accessibility to information, especially via social networking tools. It is important to support accountability efforts and tools to make such efforts visible. Latin America has prosecuted many former presidents and high rank officials, but only the Fujimori Trial provides such open information on the trial for citizens. Tracking Impunity also offers an interesting example of what can be done in the region with corrupt networks and legal procedures related to access to information and accountability.
  6. E-Learning of complex topics: Sophisticated economic crimes and complex white collar crimes require high levels of expertise in order to detect, investigate and prosecute. Paradoxically, such countries are often those most affected by corruption. Technology offers a unique opportunity to share knowledge, practices, and to train people. Many of the people I spoke to lack the tools to analyze such phenomenons, gather the evidence and build a strategy to prosecute the corrupt.
  7. Divides: Internet access remains unaffordable for many countries in the region, while others are still struggling with illiteracy rates. Elders and many workers lack the expertise to connect or the time to search for a website. It is important to consider a combination of online and offline tools - and multilingual materials - to reach those who are offline and invite them to take an active role in these projects. For example, a project using technology can connect with offline participants by printing and translating reports to broadcast via community radios. Or a local newspaper might use an article or data provided by an elections monitor. A couple of months ago I was at a conference taking place in a five stars hotel in Guatemala City: the speakers were discussing corruption and corrupted networks. Instead of a book they distributed digital copies of the work. Most of the attendees were members of NGOs living in urban areas, they owned a computer, and are literate in their mother language, Spanish. It is important to remember that the most corrupt practices in the region are taking place out of sight of the public eye, offline. How relevant is technology for transparency and civic engagement if such tools are out of reach of the people who is affected the most by corruption? How effective is civic engagement is most are excluded by default? How legitimate is an effort to promote accountability and transparency where donors are largely unaccountable for bad decisions made inside their institutions, which go against its mandate. Are cool technology projects just a placebo, an illusion to create the perception that we are actually game-changers creating a global culture of anti-corruption?
  8. Integral approach against corruption without exceptions: The ability of criminal networks to protect themselves from prosecution produces a continuous loss of trust in the justice system, and institutions in general. Without accountability there is no possible way to restore the credibility of political and legal institutions. Without transparency and access to information, accountability might be hard to achieve. The region needs an active network of citizens to fight against corruption in all its forms, including embezzlement, trading in influence, abuse of position, illicit enrichment, and obstruction of justice. It is necessary to involve broad coalitions of actors in making law, influencing foreign affairs, and making international law effective.

The Latin American projects I reviewed on the Technology for Transparency Network show actions by ordinary people, many of them working on their own time and dime, organized into various and ever-changing groups and networks. They reveal how technology is a tool to ensure rights of those affected by corruption, obscurity and impunity. And in the future, such networks of ordinary citizens, using any tool available, again and again, until it is not necessary anymore, will demand justice, transparency and accountability. To make change depends on citizens; technology is just a tool whose impact will only increase if practices and skills are shared across the region, taking advantage of the possibilities and potential of networks, and including the voices of those offline, the ones who are most affected by corruption and invisible to the public eye.

May 04 2010

Brazil: Internet use for accountability, transparency and civic engagement: What is civil society doing?

By Manuella Ribeiro

Brazil's 1988 constitution presents possibilities for citizen control and government transparency. In the last two decades, Brazilians have seen several experiences of the use of this power to demand better governance, such as the calls for impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello in the early 90s which forced his early resignation. In 2010, the Ficha Limpa movement was created to guarantee that politicians with court convictions cannot hold public positions. At the same time, the Mensalão’l and corporative card scandals have caused a greater lack of confidence among citizens, especially toward the Congress.

Despite - or perhaps due to - the lack of credibility of the Brazilian government, the past two years have seen the creation of a number of grassroots projects that use the Internet to promote accountability, transparency and civic engagement. The founders of these projects report that a number of problems face Brazil in its search for greater social control, transparency and civic engagement. These include a culture of passive engagement, a difficulty in understanding the technical jargon used by governments, the lack of access to government data, and limited civic participation outside of the election cycle. To overcome these problems, Brazilian citizens have created online tools that encourage citizens to demand greater government transparency and citizen participation.

Some illustrative case studies

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. They suggest that each citizen adopt a local politician and write about his/her activities on a blog so that politicians know that they are being watched - and also to create a bridge between their work and online users who may ask questions or leave complaints as blog comments. Zanella, the founder of the wiki, believes that the main obstacles to its success are both cultural and technical: “Brazilian people are not used to the democratic process. For most Brazilians, governance is a synonym of elections, which happens only every 4 years. In the meantime Brazilians have little participation in the political agenda, even if they have a very local problem that involves the government. Usually, when some public problem happens people think it is a problem of the politicians, not them. So, Brazilian citizens don't see a way to construct and solve local public problems policies for themselves.”

He also stresses that most Brazilians still do not know how to use the tools of the internet - such as blogs and wikis - to publish information about their politicians. A wiki was created to group and coordinate participants who adopt politicians. They also plan workshops to teach citizens how to use Internet tools to become involved in the project.

Another experience is Cidade Democratica (”Democratic City”), which enables Brazilians to document and discuss municipal problems and come up with solutions. The main problem for founder Rodrigo Luna is culture: “Brazilians wait for someone else to solve their problems. This passivity cannot help us build the country where we want to live.” he content published on Cidade Democrática is organized by category, user-defined tags, city, and neighborhood. Registered users can: 1) document problems and propose solutions 2) support proposals created by other users; 3) comment, question, and discuss problems and proposals; 4) publicize a proposal and/or problem by email; and 5) create a profile to follow particular topics and places of interest. Despite its short time in existence, the site already has already yielded some results. A discussion about the city of Jundiai, which revealed that there was no public hearing to discuss the municipality's Master Plan, led officials to schedule a public audience later this year.

Other project leaders interviewed in our research emphasized the difficulty in accessing and understanding the government data in Brazil. The website Congresso Aberto (”Open Congress”) tracks, visualizes, and analyzes official data from Brazil's Congress. The objective is to provide official data in a more accessible way in order to promote more transparency in Brazil's Congress. It also includes academic research and basic statistics about the behavior of politicians, such as their voting records. But the founders have had problems in sustaining the site's content because they cannot access the necessary data not centralized on the congressional website. Cesar Zucco, one of the founders of the initiative says, “We have to search the information from all the government’s sites. We hope that when Brazil has a Freedom of Information Law, we can more easily access the data that we need. Our idea is that the basic activities of the site will be automated, and that nobody will need to update it. Our effort would be in favor of increasing the amount of information and to improve our analysis of it in Congresso Aberto.”

Another website that promotes more transparency in Congress is called VotenaWeb (“Vote on the Web”). In this site the bills are translated in a simple and objective way to encourage citizens to participate in the daily life of the Brazil's Congress. Besides simply monitoring the bills, users can interact with the political landscape by symbolically voting for or against each bill. The result of their votes is displayed in simple and easy to understand graphics. Furthermore, it is possible for users to compare their votes among themselves, and also with politicians. Project coordinator Priscila Marcenes says: “Only people who are already politicized can use government data as it is currently shown: visually unattractive, and in a very complicated and bureaucratic language. We created the site to work with data to promote a form of transparency that is accessible to all citizens without exclusion.” The project leaders struggle to keep up with the time-consuming task of translating bills into a simple and accessible language, and also to simply keep up with the volume of legislation that appears weekly in Congress.

Conclusions and next steps for progress in Brazil

The Brazilian experience in the technology for transparency movement is recent; most projects began less than a year ago. The oldest is the Adopt a City Councilman who was released on January 8, 2009. One challenge in this research is to analyze the impact of these experiences given the short time of their existence. It is also important to note that none of the projects we reviewed represent all regions and municipalities of Brazil. The map of the Adopt a City Councilmember, for example, has 32 municipalities with bloggers that have adopted a councilman in a country of 5564 municipalities. Vote on the Web and Democratic City have, respectively, approximately 3000 and 1233 registered users.

The four projects we reviewed use various Internet tools such as Twitter, Facebook, wikis, email and others. Typically they use more than one tool simultaneously. They all have twitter and email accounts. The Projects Adote um Vereador – Adopt a politician - and Congresso Aberto - Open Congress - are supported only by volunteers. ‘Vote na Web’ and ‘Cidade Democrática’ have elements of institutional support; by Webcitizen and the Seva Institute respectively.

Three of the four projects highlighted the lack of a Freedom of Information Law in Brazil. This presents an obstacle to ensuring information on their respective websites. In early April the Chamber of Deputies approved bill n.5228, known as the Freedom of Information Law, which will regulate access to government information as required by Brazil’s Constitution. Although the bill is subject to approval in the Senate for its passage, Brazil will soon become part of a group of countries adopting laws to ensure transparency and access to public information. Cesar Zucco, professor of political science at Princeton and a founder of the Congresso Aberto, hopes that the freedom of information law will facilitate access to data on the behavior of Brazilian deputies, to save the team from time-consuming research so that they can focus on more analysis on the policies in Congress.

All projects have identified as next steps: financing (especially for the volunteer projects); increasing the number of participants (especially during the 2010 election year); and attracting more technologists to help improve the functionality of their websites.

In addition to enhancing functionality of the Cidade Democrática website, Luna and his team will also launch another website to discuss how the internet is being used in relation to Brazil's public sphere. Called Webcidadania (”Webcitizenship”), the site will also examine the projects in Brazil that promote accountability, transparency and civic engagement, such as Vote na Web, Adote um Verador and others:

In this, the ‘Cidade Democrática’ came to create this channel so that governments know what citizens really need. The movement webcidadania is a space that is being created for a number of organizations that work with on strengthening citizenship on the web. With this insight we start talking on Twitter. Those who use twitter can find follow ‘@webcidadania’ and find several issues and proposed actions that are being planned.

Project leaders agree that it is neither technology nor financing that pose the biggest challenge, but rather cultural obstacles in Brazil to transparency, participation, and accountability. The issues raised here - and in the four case studies - are not only technological problem, but political. The Internet, like any other technology, cannot be considered disconnected from the social and political processes in which it operates.

May 02 2010

Tech for Transparency in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Rebekah Heacock

Map via Transparency International. A score of 0 (darkest blue) indicates high corruption; a score of 10 (lightest blue) indicates low corruption.

With the exception of Botswana, Mauritius and Cape Verde, none of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa fall above the midway point of the 2009 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how citizens perceive the level of government corruption. In its profile on the region (PDF), the organization writes that corruption can “undermin[e] political stability and well as the governments' capacity to provide effective basic services…. In such a context, corruption levels can mean the difference between life and death.”

Civil society throughout the continent has been pushing for greater public sector transparency, and some governments are beginning to respond. Ghana's Ministry of Information recently announced the “Ghana Policy Fair 2010,” a showcase of government projects and policies open to public comment. In Cape Verde, the Núclea Operacional da Sociedade de Informação (NOSI), or Operational Nucleus of the Information Society, makes information on the government's financial activities accessible to citizens while allowing them to apply for a variety of civil services — birth and marriage certificates, for example — online. The Portal do Governo da República de Angola, performs similar services in Angola.

Civil society has also begun to move its transparency and accountability efforts online. These efforts are supported by a growing tech community in sub-Saharan Africa, though a widespread lack of access to information and communications technology (ICT) and a consequent lack of understanding of and interest in these tools constitute a significant challenge to their success.

How Africans are using technology

Despite low rates of Internet and mobile phone penetration compared to the rest of the world, sub-Saharan Africa is home to a vibrant community of entrepreneurs, web companies and software developers who are responsible for mobile social networking applications, local blog aggregators and much more. Technology incubators like Appfrica Labs in Kampala and iHub in Nairobi are fostering new developments in this space.

ICT4D
Much of the attention on ICT in Africa has been focused on the use of these tools for economic development, or ICT4D. Mobile banking, which brings financial services to rural and extremely poor customers who lack access to traditional banks, is rapidly spreading throughout the continent. One of the better known examples is Kenya's M-PESA, which in just three years has grown from serving 50,000 customers to serving nearly 6.5 million. Question Box, a mobile phone-based tool developed with support from the Grameen Foundation, allows Ugandans to call or message operators who have access to a database full of information on health, agriculture and education — it's a little like Google for people without Internet access. Mobile phones are also being used to help rural health workers diagnose minor illnesses and counsel HIV/AIDS patients.

Ushahidi
It has become nearly impossible to discuss citizen technology efforts in Africa without mentioning Ushahidi, the crowdsourced reporting tool first developed to track post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. Ushahidi has sparked a wave of election monitoring projects that utilize the tool, both in Africa and in other regions. Sudan Vote Monitor, which tracked the country's presidential elections in April, is one example. The crowdsourced reporting tool has also been deployed in Togo, and a project is being planned in time for the 2011 elections in Liberia. In addition to election-related projects, Ushahidi has also been deployed to track medical supply shortages in eastern Africa, xenophobic attacks in South Africa, and conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Technical issues

Though Africa's tech community is growing, popular lack of access to ICT is still a major obstacle to the use of technology for government accountability projects. In all but a few African countries, less than ten percent of the population has Internet access. Mobile phones — some with data services, but most with only simple texting abilities — have fared much better, with penetration rates reaching around 30 percent continent-wide.

Map via Online Africa.

This lack of access affects governments as well, which can often be less familiar with emerging technologies than their citizens. The Ghana Policy Fair mentioned above has its own Facebook page, indicating the government's desire to reach out through ICT, but some Ghanaians wish an even greater effort had been made to put information online. One blogger wrote:

So they can't simply put all this information onto a website for anyone who is interested to go and look it up? Instead people have to take time and spend lorry fair to attend a policy fair, for some information that will only be available temporarily? What a waste of time.

The lack of government capacity to effectively use ICT is one of the factors that prompted the founders of the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool to work with various ministries to put budgetary data online in a way that would be useful for citizens. Philip Thigo, one of the project's co-founders, says the government was more or less willing to make its data accessible — and in fact was attempting to put information online — but that the ministries lacked the necessary technical skills to make their databases easily navigable by average Kenyans. In addition to building a searchable web site, the Budget Tracking Tool also developed a script to handle simple SMS queries, so that anyone with a mobile phone can text in and find out how much money has been allocated for various projects in their area. The system currently gets between 4000 and 4500 queries per month.

Also in Kenya, the founders of community mapping project Map Kibera are attempting to combat low access to technology by moving part of their project offline so they can get community members who are not able to use the Internet involved. They have decided to print paper copies of the maps they've generated online and hand them out to the community, hoping to spark a discussion. “Paper's cool, so we are going to print posters, several hundred at least, and distribute those to every school, every church, every clinic, every sort of public institution in Kibera so that people can see for themselves what's collected and start to have a particular interest on there which would suggest where this is going,” says co-founder Mikel Maron.

Resistance to technology for transparency projects

In some countries, access is also threatened by governments wary of citizens using new communications tools. According to an OpenNet Initiative report on Internet filtering in the region, while many governments are actively attempting to increase ICT penetration, some are blocking online content or monitoring citizens' Internet use. The Sudanese government recently blocked election monitoring site Sudan Vote Monitor and YouTube during the country's presidential elections. In a number of countries, including Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Internet service providers and Internet cafés are required to hand over data on customers' online activities to the government if asked. This kind of government intervention may discourage those who might otherwise engage in transparency efforts online.

Resistance may also come from citizens who do not see value in new technologies. Goretti Amuriat, the ICT Program Manager for the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), says that when the organization was initially surveying women to see how best to develop ICT initiatives, many women in rural communities were uninterested in using technology, preferring to focus their time and energy on more widely available and accessible tools. Earlier this year, reports on an e-governance program in Southern Sudan revealed that a lack of enthusiasm for technology on the part of government officials led to the program's failure.

Philip Thigo of the Budget Tracking Tool cautions against spending too much time working on neat ICT tools that don't sufficiently engage the community: “I think a thing about technology is uptake. If there's no need then you'll just have a tool that will be wowed, wowed, and then just go dead.” To make sure Kenyans would use the tool, Philip and his partner asked citizens and civil society organizations what they needed the most, then developed the tool to meet those needs.

Successes

Despite these challenges, tech for transparency projects in Africa are making an impact. Map Kibera is building partnership with local organizations focused on water, health, education and safety to use mapping technology to monitor the provision of basic services. Also in Kenya, data mining made possible by the Budget Tracking Tool uncovered a major corruption scandal at the Ministry of Water that led to the firing of a number of public officials involved. WOUGNET has held the Ugandan government accountable to women, successfully working to insert gender-sensitive language into the country's national ICT and development policies. And during this month's presidential elections, Sudan Vote Monitor received hundreds of reports, despite having their site blocked in the country for several days.

One of the most important elements of these projects' success is the involvement of the communities in which they operate. All four have built partnerships with local organizations and consulted civil society groups. WOUGNET regularly conducts surveys of its members, shaping its own initiatives and its advocacy programs in response. Sudan Vote Monitor works with a large network of civil society organizations throughout Sudan. The founders of the Budget Tracking Tool spent time traveling throughout the country asking citizens what kinds of information would be useful to them before returning to Nairobi to develop the technical aspects of the project.

Another key aspect of many of these projects is their willingness to incorporate multiple forms of communication, using the Internet and mobile phones where possible but also extending their outreach to community meetings, radio and printed materials when necessary. WOUGNET circulates a print version of its e-mail newsletter for women who are not able to get online, Map Kibera has reached out to community members via radio.

What's next?

Aid transparency
One area the Technology for Transparency Network has not yet spent much time on is the issue of aid transparency. A substantial amount of donor money pours into sub-Saharan Africa each year — approximately $50 billion, in fact — but the effects are difficult to discern, and a growing number of academics and activists are calling for a halt to the flow. Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo has called foreign aid “an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster,” and Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda delivered a talk at TEDGlobal 2007 in which he argued that aid is preventing Africa from developing. Several aid transparency initiatives are using technology to open aid data to the public, including the International Aid Transparency Initiative, Aid Info, and the Ujima Project, which focuses specifically on Africa. There may be room for greater partnership between these types of organizations and country-specific projects like Kenya's Budget Tracking Tool that would help track aid flows from the international level all the way down to local project implementation.

Greater adoption by local populations
The tech for transparency community in sub-Saharan Africa is currently driven by a few strong visionaries, most of whom have outside support. While they have been able to encourage greater government accountability in some cases, their projects are still often underutilized. In his review of the second round of Technology for Transparency Network case studies, David Sasaki writes that the Budget Tracking Tool presents Kenyan budgetary data online, “where users can leave comments about the progress, impact, and efficiency of the projects. (So far, few have.)” Sudan Vote Monitor received a considerable amount of attention from both the international media and the Sudanese government during April's elections, but only a few hundred reports (an estimated 16 million people were registered to vote). A large part of this lack of adoption is the technical difficulties noted above, but in many African countries transparency activists must work hard to convince citizens that pushing for government accountability is more important than other development issues. Mikel Maron says of Kibera: “It's very much a day to day place, people are concerned with getting dinner tonight, and when you're working on a project which requires a long term individual commitment without immediate rewards, well that's understandably counter to the usual way of thinking.” As both technology and economic development spread in Africa, this may change, but for now, it is still something transparency activists must consider.

Keep an eye on the tech community
Many of Africa's tech for transparency projects so far have grown out of the tech side of things. Building technological skills in Africa is good in many ways: it helps the economy, fosters innovation, and ensures that when the need for an election monitoring project or the idea to track a country's budget arises, there is a substantial group of developers who can support the project. If stronger connections between existing civil society groups and talented techies can be built, I believe we'll see more widespread use of technology to advocate for better governance.

May 01 2010

Transparency Projects in Central and Eastern Europe

By Sylwia Presley

Central and Eastern Europe is rich in examples of citizen participation projects related to governmental transparency, most of which work in partnership with major institutions that provide financial and methodological support like Open Society Institute, MySociety and Transparency International. Many also work with local organizations and media. I have talked to people involved in such projects in Poland and in Hungary, but they also mentioned innovative work coming from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, like KohoVolit.eu. Before we look more closely at example projects from the area let me share my overall insights with you after having studied a few major transparency projects in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The actual type of transparency projects in each country depends on the profiles of people involved in the initial action, their relationship with the government, as well as on the nature of citizen participation in the country. All of those projects acknowledge the need to disclose information related to governance in an smoothly presented, easily digestible way. Whether it is with the support of many volunteers, or with a smaller core group of dedicated activists, they all invest a lot of time in their projects and yet still struggle in procuring precise government information, which should be made publicly available. Most of them flag issues regarding governmental accountability. In many cases, their cooperation with mainstream media seems to play an important role in their ability to put pressure of MP’s and other public officials. Some transparency projects also aim to address the frequently passive attitude of citizens in the region regarding corruption, which as mentioned in a chat with Kepmutatas in Hungary, originates from lack of understanding of existing official procedures for citizens to flag government misconduct. It quickly becomes apparent that in Central and Eastern Europe raising awareness among citizens about transparency and the methods to fight corruption is just as important as putting pressure on government representatives to become more transparent about their actions and expenses.

From Check Republic and Slovakia we have seen a conversation with KohoVolit.eu, a project of two dedicated people who spend their time raising awareness about representatives from parliaments in both countries, as well as representatives from the European Parliament. As mentioned in the interview, main challenges are related to a lack of citizen participation in politics, and the lack of structured, official information from the parliament websites.

Slovakia hosts another interesting transparency project, the Fair Play Alliance, where politicians are asked to actively participate in the project and if they fail to do so, are faced with related media coverage at the most sensitive them time leading up to elections. Again, it reveals the strategy of combining research and open data with mainstream media partnerships to put pressure on politicians to be more transparent and more accountable during their time in office.

In Hungary, the project Kepmutatas.hu is responding to the challenge of poorly presented public information by building a visually friendly tool to estimate unreported campaign expenses by major political parties on a simple graph with links to additional details. Despite media support and a clear call to action, there is still a lack of political will to reform campaign finance laws. Political parties are not required to disclose their campaign spending so volunteers and project coordinators work to calculate estimated sums. The project is promoted via traditional media, but also social media channels like Facebook.

In Poland there are a few projects worth mentioning. Sejmometr.pl is a portal that feeds official information about currently introduced laws and the legislators involved in their creation. It also offers legal advice, encourages bloggers to co-operate on stories, and request more data from the parliament website administrators. Stowarzyszenie Art. 61 (the name refers to article 61 of Polish Constitution, which declares access to public, governance-related information public) is the organization behind a few transparency projects in the country. Their Kandydaci2009 initiative is the second edition (following a similar version in 2005) of a portal to help citizens to choose representatives to European Parliament by presenting profiles and platforms of the candidates, as well as reports on no-cooperative representatives. Its twin project, Mam Prawo Wiedzieć ('I have the right to know‘) is a similar compass of candidates to Polish parliament with a dedicated to “Citizen’s Guide” that offers concise explanations of laws related citizen's rights regarding transparency and accountability. Watchdog.pl is an NGO working closely with other organizations to educate, advocate and support developments in the area of transparency and accountability. Their website is a good knowledge pool of campaigns, issues and solutions. All three Polish organizations use a strong network of like minded people to promote their work offline, as well as through social media channels.

Participants of the Watchdog: Working Out Credibility workshop that took place in late March in Warsaw.

When reading case studies from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as during conversations with Polish and Hungarian activists I could not help but realize another challenge: co-operation at the regional level. We see Fair Play Alliance sharing their tools abroad, we hear about Kepmutatas.hu staying in touch with Czech campaigners but the information flow between those teams seems to be limited. I personally see great potential in transparency and social media events in the region. Social Innovation Camp in Bratislava provided many NGO’s with an occasion to share knowledge and skills. The fifth annual Confidence Conference, which is planned for the end of May in Warsaw, brings together specialists from different organizations and sectors to share skills and network. Wikimania, planned for July in Gdansk, aims to bring professionals from the entire region, which can give opportunities to network as well. And last but not least, Watchdog aims to end the summer season with a barcamp-style event dedicated strictly to transparency. I hope that the Technology for Transparency Network will push for more co-operation across geographic and language barriers to encourage the sharing of skills and ideas.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Catching Up with Online Transparency Projects

By Victor Kaonga

The advent of multiparty democracy in much of Sub Saharan Africa during the 1990’s brought with it many developments, some of which have led to an opening for more civic participation in governance. Modeled on the basic tenets of democracy, there was a parallel growth in the number of civil society organizations calling for greater transparency and accountability from government officials. For the first time ever, citizens began to understand that they can make demands from their elected public servants. For instance, in Zambia, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, etc, people realised another measure of freedom by voting for officials into parliaments and municipal councils.

It appears, therefore, that the era of multiparty democracy has ignited the people's desire to start demanding transparency and accountability from those they elected. The transparency movement in those years utilised several platforms at the national and local levels, including the traditional media. But with the coming of and growing access to Information and Communication Technology tools, they extended their use to such tools as the Internet and mobile phones.

It is interesting to note that generally most transparency projects stem from the civil society as they traditionally assume the role of a watchdog. Some are global while others are localised. For instance Transparency International, Amnesty International, advocacy and lobbying groups have tended to be in the lead in undertaking projects that call for government’s transparency and accountability. With the new media tools on the rise, people in Sub-Saharan Africa started turning to the web 2.0 tools in the early 2000 to put pressure on their government. For instance in 2001, Kubatana.net in Zimbabwe started in a humble manner to connect non-governmental organisations using their email directory and mailing list. In 2003, Malawi's Sustainable Development Networking Project (SDNP) began as an ISP which mostly provided services to the Malawian government of Malawi, but also ran a conversational forum for civil society organisations.

The use of portals and blogs, however, did not begin to take off in Sub-Saharan Africa until mid-2005.

Obstacles to the use of technology in the transparency movement

It should be understood that there are multiple challenges in the region facing technology for transparency projects. Among these are: poor Internet infrastructure, technophobia, high connection and connectivity costs, the lack of ICT policy in some countries, inadequate knowledge and ICT personnel. These challenges characterise most of new media situations in Sub Saharan Africa. A project called Ujima that attempts to bring transparency to the workings and spending of African governments, multinational non-governmental organizations and business enterprise in African countries says that “few African countries have freedom of information laws. Getting at this information from inside the countries can be difficult.”

The Africa i-Parliament Action Plan points out there is a lack of economic and technical resources across the continent. “Many parliaments have a weak IT department, and they do not have the capacity to design and manage the deployment of a complex parliamentary system. Most parliaments are using old systems that are the results of layers of development that are hard to maintain in isolation.”

In addition to the above, there is a lack of funding and well trained personnel to creatively keep the transparency battle afloat. Policies and government structures are changing quickly and activists need to adjust accordingly with foresight in order to introduce more transparency and accountability into the system. A visit to several websites run by civil society organizations involved in transparency, civic engagement and election issues reveals frequent lapses in updating the content of the sites, which is linked to inadequate funds and the shortage of personnel.

Why Transparency Projects

Transparency initiatives have borne fruit at various levels. For instance in Zimbabwe non-governmental organisations put pressure on the government to explain the use of the money that is collected at newly established toll booths.

Bev Clark of Kubatana.net explains they put an activist message in one of “the newsletters and asked where the money is going. The conditions of the roads in Bulawayo, Mutare, and Harare are very poor. We put this note in the newsletter to get people to think about and we asked the people to write Transparency International Zimbabwe to do something about it. Our membership rallied, mobilised and Transparency International Zimbabwe investigated and did something about it.” However, while a network of activists connected through a mailing list did mobilise to convince Transparency International Zimbabwe to investigate the use of the toll revenue, we have not been informed that the Zimbabwean government responded to the investigation, or if any instances of corruption were uncovered. Still, it is worth noting that the issue was made more visible through the use of networked communication. We recommend that future researchers follow up to measure the longterm efficacy of these efforts.

In South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Mozambique, activists have used blogs and web portals to communicate and campaign for fair and free elections. One would imagine that their constant publishing of information related to the elections - that would otherwise not have been made public - put pressure on political parties, candidates, and election officials to ensure credibility and transparency on voting day. Unfortunately, there are too many variables to measure in any scientific way the impact of such information portals on election credibility. We posit that to publish information about elections and electoral processes in developing democracies is better than to not publish that information, but we also recognize that such projects are limited by internet penetration, which still hovers around 5% in many Sub-Saharan African countries, though that number is now increasing rapidly.

Following the successes and recognition of early projects, more Sub-Saharan Africans are demanding information through modern technologies. Higher and increasing internet penetration along with mobile phone networks enable access to civic participation for citizens who would otherwise not have access to transparency platforms.

Traditional media companies in Africa have not shown consistency in reporting on transparency issues. Being in business, there is a tendency for most media outlets to hit and run to another story, without following up on corruption-related stories. Technology for transparency projects tend to be more focused on reform and participation in governance, which over time is likely to lead to established credibility as a force against corruption and for improved governance. With specific reference to the projects I reviewed, it seems likely that they will still be around in the next three or more years. This is because they seem to have so far established a profile of success that makes them attractive for funding. However it is the creativity of their approach that might need adjustment in order to take a multi-pronged approach to effectively achieving transparency.

For instance elected officials easily attack or hit back at civil society organisations that seem to give them a tough time. In spite of claiming to be democratic societies, some governments even enact laws that would bar greater involvement of civil society in transparency initiatives and government reform.

Namibian journalists and bloggers are trained by the African Elections Project, which aims to improve coverage and monitoring of elections in Africa to improve their credibility and accountability.

It should be pointed out that the African Elections Project and Bungeni are unique in that both use creative tools to document and support the electoral and parliamentary systems. The projects have a continent-wide approach to level the playing field for the election stakeholders - and the involvement and transparency of members of parliament - respectively.

Transparency projects and traditional anti-corruption organizations

There appears to be a fight for visibility to secure an organization's survival. NGOs are known to compete for visibility, and hence collaborative efforts are often superficial. If Tech for transparency projects are to have a reaching impact in the region, then they need to introduce themselves to well-established networks of like-minded organizations and indicate what gaps they are able to fill in the larger fight against corruption, and for transparency, accountability, and civic participation.

The needs

The reviewed projects have revealed a couple of needs in Sub Saharan Africa. These include:

  1. The need for a well-established ICT infrastructure.
  2. The desire to see more freedom of expression for both citizens and the media. It is clear from the reviewed cases that that some projects do not yet have the ideal environment to operate for fear of putting government reprisal.
  3. It is also clear that while a good number of NGOs are pushing for the use of technology in their advocacy for transparency, there are a good number of government departments and agencies - as well as individual officials - who do not yet appreciate the role of ICTs in development, let alone in engaging citizens for the good of democracies in the region.
  4. Finally, the projects I reviewed have also revealed that there is a potential for their greater impact. I see civil society organizations hungering for more knowledge and skills to utilise the tools. They are aware of the tremendous benefits of networked communications in civil society, but do not have access to the skills, funding, or infrastructure to take advantage of those benefits.

Recommendations to project leaders, funders, and governments

Technology for transparency projects stand to benefit more Africans. However for this to be realised, it is necessary that the project leaders do more promotion of their projects, and aggressively and collectively lobby their governments to provide a safe working environment. The project leaders also need to be more creative in reaching out to illiterate people in rural areas. For funders, they should consider more funding towards personnel, operating costs, and technical training. It is often the case that funders give less attention to operating costs that would enable the project to work toward sustainability. The biggest assignment for most countries lies with their governments. Elected officials should deliberately introduce policies friendly to the implementation of technology for transparency projects, especially the publication of open government data and the passage of freedom of information laws. This includes the creation of a safe working environment for watchdog groups that demand more transparency and accountability from governments than officials themselves may be comfortable with. Such organizations at least have the basic right to advocate for the policies they believe in.

April 29 2010

Southeast Asia: Good Governance Advocacy via Technology

By Sopheap Chak

A glance at the root and concept of “governance”

In Southeast Asia, a well-known term associated with transparency, accountability and civic engagement is simply “governance,” which became a highly and hotly discussed topic during the 1997 Financial Crisis that demanded the region put into place new governmental regulation.

It is evident, for example, in 1999 when Thailand officially adopted six elements of good governance: rule of law, integrity, transparency, participation, accountability and value for money. Singapore has also endorsed the principles of governance based on an accountable and transparent government, long-term orientation and social justice. In Malaysia, the issue of good governance plays the role of a reformist discourse in challenging the ruling regime and the dominant political culture, as was illustrated in the case of Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest in the middle of the financial crisis. (Unfortunately, allegations of corruption by Ibrahim were overshadowed by sensationalist rumors of his homosexuality.) In Cambodia, good governance has become a cornerstone of the National “Rectangular Strategy” for Growth, Employment, Equity and Efficiency which aims to combat corruption, reform the legal system and civil service, and decentralize key areas of government.

Why governance?

Governance is generally defined as the “mechanisms and processes for citizens and groups to articulate their interests mediate their differences and exercise their legal rights and obligations.” Notwithstanding the varying definition of governance, transparency, accountability and participation are commonly attached as the key elements of governance. These elements function interdependently to ensure the sound development of a country.

Governance Issues:

While acknowledging the improvement of governance issues following the policy adoption of good governance after the financial criis, the problems of corruption, human rights violations, and restrictive freedom to expression still remain in the region. Governments have shown their efforts to improve the legal frameworks and institutional structure to promote transparency, accountability, and civic participation. The anti-corruption effort, for example, can be witnessed through the creation of Anti-Corruption Agency in Malaysia, and the Anti-Corruption Commission in East Timor, the Office of the Ombudsman in the Philippines, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in Singapore, the Corruption Eradication Commission in Indonesia, the National Anti-Corruption Commission in Thailand, and the Anti-Corruption Bureau in Brunei. It is also revealed in the recent development of the Anti-Corruption Law in Cambodia, and the Whistle Blower Law in Indonesia. However, Southeast Asian countries are still ranked mostly at the top of Transparency International's corruption perception index, with the exception of Singapore. Furthermore, Cambodia, Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, and Vietnam have been recorded as countries at critical crossroads based on the Freedom House's 2010 quantitative analysis of government accountability, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency efforts.

Corruption has been spectacularly and frequently demonstrated at high levels of government leadership. In 2001 alone, for instance, three Southeast Asia leaders faced major allegations of corruption: President Abdurrahman Wahid in Indonesia, President Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Systematic corruption in most countries of the region has disrupted progress toward development and rule of law, where a culture of impunity has so far prevailed. In many case, rule of law has been corrupted in order to hinder civic participation's demand for open government and public accountability.

Movement for Better Governance

The globalization and development of technology has brought about better access to information and the advancement of civic participation despite the fact that governance issues are still challenging. The growth of civil society organizations whose roles are to advocate for the respect of human rights and open government have empowered citizens and promoted greater civic participation. While non-government organizations are traditionally key advocacy players, technological advances have changed this trend where citizen journalism network arises. However, the trend is still minimal and varies due to governance restriction in the region.

In the case of Cambodia, for example, the rise of citizen journalism is relatively low compared to other countries in the region. Though a notion of digital democracy is emerging, the participation from young bloggers in demanding their rights is far from the norm. The continuation of government restrictive measures via legal, judicial and police forces that usually targetedpoliticians, journalists, and activists who are critical to the government has hindered greater youth participation. Therefore, the governance advocacy movement is still mostly driven by civil society organizations, such as the case of Sithi, a Cambodian human rights portal that aims to crowdsource and curate reports of human rights violations, or Saatsam, a virtual library that stores corruption-related information aiming at encouraging public participation to alleviate corruption and promote transparency. This trend is probably shared by emerging countries like Timor-Leste where projects are run by NGOs such as Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (“The Mirror for the People,”), aiming at raising awareness and campaigning for transparency, accountability, good-governance, economic justice and anti-corruption, and Centru Jornalista Investigativu Timor Leste, a daily online publication that describes itself as “the Last Hope, when the court system doesn't work.”

Countries where technological advancement and rising voices of citizens are more tolerated have greater civic participation and a more vibrant civil society. Examples include Penang Watch and 15 Malaysia in Malaysia; blogwatch and VoteReportPH in the Philippines, and theOnlineCitizen in Singapore, where they are run by voluntary bloggers or citizen groups advocating for better governance.

Although there are differing degrees of grassroots initiatives, the region faces similar challenges in running their projects. Problems include a lack of volunteers who stay committed with the projects, a lack of advanced technological and reporting skills, and legal obstructions like the absence of freedom of information laws or the existence of oppressive publishing laws.

In Singapore, for example, there are reportedly three tiers of censorship:

“The 1st tier are the legislations passed by Parliament which restricts freedom of expression. The 2nd tier of censorship are those imposed by government bodies which are authorized by law to draw up guidelines and policies pertaining to political expression. A key feature of this 2nd tier of censorship are the non-transparency and the nebulous nature of its implementation, which leads to a blurring of the the line of what is acceptable and non-acceptable speech. This in turn creates a climate where writers, bloggers, artists and politicians self-censor their speech in order that they do not overstep boundaries. This climate of self-censorship forms the 3rd tier of censorship in Singapore.”

In the case of the Philippines, on the other hand, activism is a dangerous field. “During the stay of the current administration, more than 1000 activists were victims of extra judicial killings. Unless the pattern of impunity is addressed, activists (online and offline) will always find it difficult to work,” says Rick Bahague, VoteReportPH’s Project Leader.

In addition to slow and limited internet access in the region, internet censorship is apparently another challenges for technology initiatives, like in the case of Cambodia. There are concerns that the government is implementing a state-run exchange point to control all local internet service providers under the claim of strengthening internet security against pornography, theft and cyber crime.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the persistent activism and engagement with relevant non-governmental and governmental agencies are a key approach to achieve their project goals. Among all documented projects, Penang Watch is attempting to work closely with government agencies to hold them accountable in solving residents' complaints. In addition to insistently reminding agencies and/or individuals to respond to citizen complaints, they also adopt the “name and shame” approach as a last resort to push for complaint settlement. These approaches have proved successful in solving nearly half of all submitted complaints.

In a comment on the VoteReportPH case study David Sasaki notes that tying voter education to training workshops is a smart tactic. David has observed many instances of Ushahidi installations meant to crowdsource reports of voting irregularities, but these projects mostly attract the participation of just a few dedicated volunteers or non-profit staff.  In order for this project to truly bring about electoral accountability and a verified electoral process, it is suggested that VoteReportPH should meet with leaders from the COMELEC, the Philippines Commission on Elections, to develop a published framework for how COMELEC will respond to reports of voting irregularities. (Speaking of processes, David recommends taking a look at how Venezuela's National Election Council ensure voting transparency - despite instances of machine failures - in their 2007 referendum vote.) Learning form Penang Watch, VoteReportPH should engage closely with COMELEC in their investigation and resolution of reports of election fraud. Answerability to reported cases will be an incentive for greater participation from the public as well as to ensure that the elections are credible.

The Online Citizen: was founded in December, 2006 as a community aiming to tell stories about Singapore and Singaporeans that are not being told in the mainstream press. Their hope is to use advocacy journalism to stimulate more civic participation, open government, and free media through the use of online activist initiatives. TOC takes on a more critical role than mainstream media by challenging the mindset of policy makers and creating a space for average citizens whose concerns would not be echoed in mainstreamed media. TOC has faced difficulties in registering as a Limited Liability Partnership due to restrictive criteria. They are also still recruiting more committed, contributing writers who are persistent in their reporting. While acknowledging these challenges, Joint-Chief Editor Ravi Philemon optimistically believes that an expansion of civic participation through the use of online tools will allow TOC to continue its mission.

An example of how this site has contributed to offline change would be the issue of foreign or migrant workers in Singapore. After a one-week campaign on TOC in 2009, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) took action - which include raiding various dormitory sites that house these workers in atrocious conditions. Also, the MOM has also been more answerable after these instances were first highlighted by TOC and later by the mainstream media. It is thus recommended that the team keep persistent in their advocacy work by staying engaged with responsible agencies to take action on issues that are raised from citizen reporting. The team is exploring the use of technology to crowdsource ideas from the citizens, modeled on initiatives like  Open Austin and  Datagov , where people are able to submit ideas, comment and build on ideas, vote ideas up and down. This may help offer visitors more user friendly navigation of key issues.

Key Lesson: Persistent Activism and Close Engagement

The project listings and case studies from Southeast Asia reveal that persistent activism and close engagement with a variety stakeholders - including government agencies with the power to sanction - will take these project from mere information to more accountability and increased civic participation. The more examples of concrete accountability that resulted from online information and participation that these projects can point to, the more successful they will be in generating interest and activism around their causes. However, this often requires broader changes political will and actual legislation to reduce the climate of fear that hinders broader participation in such projects.

Sudan: Checking in with Sudan Vote Monitor

By Rebekah Heacock

On the eve of Sudan's 2010 presidential elections, I interviewed Fareed Zein, who heads the citizen election monitoring project Sudan Vote Monitor, for the Technology for Transparency Project. Zein was hopeful that the project would bring greater transparency to the country's first democratic elections in more than two decades. “There was basically no idea what was going on on the ground” during previous political events, Zein said at the time. “What we're hoping to do is shine a light and give people access to events that are occurring at remote election centers.” On Wednesday I checked in with Zein to get his thoughts on the project now that the elections have ended.

An official from Sudan's National Elections Commission (left) assists a voter at a polling station in Juba, Sudan.

An official from Sudan's National Elections Commission (left) assists a voter at a polling station in Juba, Sudan. Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo on Flickr.

Overall, how did things go?
It exceeded my expectations. I had such doubt that we were going to be able to pull it off given all the hurdles and challenges, right to the last minute. So to have everything worked out and to have the response that we received from the general public — and mind you we had no idea how the public was going to respond — it's just been great.

What were the biggest successes?
The quality of the reporting, the quality of the reports people were sending in, both in Arabic and in English, from all over the country. It was just really fascinating to see how quickly the public picked up the technology and was able to embrace it. They really were dying to have an avenue to express their views.

Were there any disappointments?
In terms of things that I wish had gone better, I would have liked to get more reporting from the south, as well as from Darfur. We got some, but not as much as we were hoping to. We got quite a bit from the central part of the country all the way up to the north and from the east as well, but from the west and from the south I wish we'd have gotten more. That probably has to do with the access people have to be able to send reports over the Internet or via SMS.

Another thing is the fact that I was not able to be there physically on the ground with the team that was working heroically to upload and verify the reports. It was my desire to be on the ground with them in Khartoum and in Juba, but I unfortunately wasn't able to join them. We had to do this over Skype and over the phone.

If you had another shot at monitoring the elections, what would you do differently?
We probably would try to work out the technology on the ground sooner. I would have wanted to be on the ground working out the SMS part of it, which took a lot of work. Our partner organization did a fabulous job in terms of trying to represent us with the telecom companies, but that would be something that I would have wanted to do.

We had to work down to the wire, to the last minute to get the technical pieces working. We got the short code running literally the night before, just enough time to do some basic testing. That's one thing I would have wanted to work out earlier, to do some SMS reporting both in the north and the south, so those are some of the lessons we learned.

One of the biggest stories coming out about Sudan Vote Monitor is that the site was blocked for several days during the elections. Was this a surprise, or was it something you were expecting?
I was expecting some disruption. I wasn't expecting complete a shut down, but we knew there were risks going in, so I wasn't totally surprised. I was pleased that it was allowed to operate after two days. Even during those days where it was blocked we still continued to receive reports. We were able to work, although in a reduced capacity. We were determined to work and operate in spite of the challenges — we weren't totally unprepared.

As of April 28, your site has received 257 reports. How many of these were you able to verify?
That number will probably go even higher if we add up the SMS reports. We didn't completely finish because we didn't have a way to reach the people that are doing the reporting to verify that. It's probably somewhere between 300 and 500 when you add it all together. Most of the web-based ones we were able to verify, and I would say less than half of the SMS ones.

Was there any public response to the reports on your site?
It was more of an avenue for people to get more information, which is precisely what we wanted to do. In previous elections it was all a closed door affair — nobody knew exactly what went on on the ground. The intention of this was to be able to get the information out to the public, internally and externally, about what's going on. Just being able to get the word out was enough for us. We didn't set out to try to urge anybody to take any specific action. Our mission was to get the information out and then let people judge and act for themselves.

Now that the elections are over, what's next for Sudan Vote Monitor?
We are evaluating several options. We're definitely interested in leveraging the experience. We're compiling a “lessons learned,” and we'll be publishing those. We think we're onto something here, and we believe that there is a very strong case for doing the same thing for the referendum [on independence for Southern Sudan, scheduled for January 2011]. Between now and the referendum there is a lot of need to get the public engaged, and we feel this platform is a valid and strong platform to do that. We're talking to some potential groups that are interested in collaborating with us, so definitely look for more. We will be tabulating and bringing this phase to closure and then publishing our final findings for this event, then setting the next phase very shortly.

March 04 2010

Sudan: Is ICT all it's cracked up to be?

In a December 2009 Global Voices article titled “ICT4D: Past mistakes, future wisdom,” Aparna Ray points out that many technology for development projects have “started with a bang and later died with a whimper.” According to a recent article in the Financial Times, such is the fate of a multimillion dollar World Bank plan to supply Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, with computers and Internet access.

According to Laurence Clarke, who heads the World Bank's program in the country and was interviewed for the article, the failure was not due to a lack of equipment or support. Instead, the problem is a lack of will:

Laurence Clarke, head of the bank's south Sudan programme, explains that fund money was used to buy computers, software and equipment for satellite links in Juba, the south's threadbare capital. But then “all kinds of problems came up,” he says….

“Some of the ministers apparently decided they were too old to learn to use a computer, and so they showed no enthusiasm.” In some cases even their younger assistants did not know how to log on. “So the system is lying there…moribund,” Mr Clarke says.

The recent surge in availability of mobile phones and Internet access in Africa has prompted considerable enthusiasm regarding the use of these technologies for everything from marketing and e-commerce to tracking crop diseases and reminding HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients to take their medicine. But the news from Southern Sudan forces the question: is the hype surrounding information and communication technology (ICT) justified? And how can those of us who work in this field make sure that our efforts don't result in moribundity?

As a researcher for the Technology for Transparency Network, I'm particularly interested in the way that ICT can help engage citizens in the governance of their country and encourage governments to be both transparent and accountable. Many projects are successfully using technology for transparency; David Sasaki's recent review of the network's first eight case studies shows as much. But, as the situation in Juba shows, technology does not magically lead toward better governance.

Sudanese blogger and Global Voices author Drima believes that Internet and mobile phones are not enough. “ICT is merely that, a technology. Its real usefulness is ultimately something that can only be realized if the users utilize such technology skillfully towards a good goal,” he writes.

If technology is to have an impact, Drima says, support must come not only from donors, but from within:

“When it comes to attitudes and goals, this is something the Southern Sudanese need to fix. And before we can even get into this whole idea of ICT as some kind of 'silver bullet' we really need to address many underlying concerns, beginning with corrupt leadership and destructive tribalism.”

As Sudan moves towards elections in April, technology has the potential to play a major role in both engaging citizens and in monitoring the political process. Sudan Votes, a bilingual web site sponsored by German organization Media in Cooperation and Transition along with Sudanese organizations Teeba Press and the Association of Inter-Media, hopes to “enhance the quality of media coverage on the elections” and “promote a better understanding across language barriers.” The site features articles on topics ranging from politics to health and culture, as well as a Sudan Electionnaire to help citizens learn more about the country's political parties.

Sudan Votes

Sudan Votes

Sudan Vote Monitor, led by the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy, plans to use Ushahidi to enable citizens to monitor and report on the elections.

Sudan Vote Monitor

Sudan Vote Monitor

In an election where “many citizens are unfamiliar with basic election processes, are opposed to multi-party competition and have doubts about whether the vote will be fair,” these projects may play critical roles in educating people and documenting possible problems with the voting process. In order to be successful, however, they must first find a way to convince citizens of their usefulness.

Both Sudan Votes and Sudan Vote Monitor appear to have substantial Sudanese involvement at the ground level, which may help them succeed where the World Bank program has failed. As the elections loom nearer, I'll be watching closely to see how these organizations unfold. Will they fall flat, ignored and unused by Sudanese citizens? Or will they manage to translate technology into true civic engagement?

March 02 2010

The Technology for Transparency Review, Part I

Last month The Economist published a useful overview of how governments, geeks, and activists are coming together to make politics more transparent, elected officials held more accountable, and citizens more involved in shaping debate and policy. To illustrate their point The Economist pointed readers to the Sunlight Foundation based in Washington DC, Britain's data.gov.uk, New Zealand's data.govt.nz and MashupAustralia, a competition organized by Australia's “Government 2.0 Taskforce” to encourage the development of applications that make effective use of public data to improve governance.

It makes a great deal of sense for The Economist to focus their attention on the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia; all four countries have relatively high rates of internet penetration and their federal governments have shown a commitment to publishing government data in machine readable format, which can then be analyzed and re-used on websites with interactive visualizations. But what is happening in other countries around the world where, for example, citizens might be more concerned about police bribery than campaign finance reform? Over a three-month period eight researchers and eight research reviewers from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe will document around 40 case studies of technology projects that aim to promote transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. Every two weeks we will publish an overview of their last eight case studies with the goal of promoting conversation and coming to a deeper understanding of how technology can be used to improve governance in developing democracies.

Bloggers Adopt Politicians in Brazil

Let's begin in Brazil where a pro-democracy civil society organization inspired a well known muckraking radio journalist who in turn challenged Brazilian bloggers to each “adopt a local politician” in order to keep an eye on their work and hold them accountable. Dozens of bloggers joined immediately, but it wasn't until Everton Zanella, a web developer based in Sao Paulo, decided to list and categorize all these activist bloggers that the phenomenon turned into a cohesive movement. Our Brazil-based researcher, Manuella Maia Ribeiro, sat down with Zanella to interview him about the successes and challenges of the project. Fabiano Angelico, our research reviewer who is also based in Sao Paulo, congratulates the project for its focus on local accountability when so many of these types of projects are focused only on federal governments. But he still feels that there is “room for a more efficient approach” and suggests that the bloggers should pick a monthly topic and try to raise awareness and advocate for more government data related to that one topic. He also suggests that the project should encourage its participant bloggers to interact more with journalists, civil society organizations, and universities.

It is worth noting that a similar “adopt a politician” campaign began in Peru in 2008 when the well known journalist Rosa María Palacios asked citizens to mount pressure in order to get information about the operational expenses of national congressmen. Juan Arellano wrote an in-depth review of the project, which is still active today (with 1,500 members on Facebook) despite overwhelming resistance by the majority of congressmen.

Promoting Collaboration Among Human Rights Groups in Cambodia

Cambodia has among the highest number of NGO's per capita anywhere in the world. There are dozens of organizations throughout the country publishing information about human rights and human rights abuses, but they tend to file these reports on their individual websites or, worse, in lengthy PDF reports that are sent via email to their funders. With the goal of promoting more collaboration among human rights, organizations the Cambodian Center for Human Rights has launched Sithi.org, a map-based visualization and archive of human rights violations and related news which can be filtered by category and sub-category. Preetam Rai, our research reviewer for Southeast Asia suggests that Sithi.org make contact with Cambodian bloggers to spread more awareness about the initiative outside of just the human rights activist community. By distributing their data via Facebook and Twitter - and by presenting the project at local tech meetups - they are more likely to attract the interest of Cambodia's enthusiastic 20-something generation of techies. Lastly, Preetam recommends giving more visible attribution to the organizations that contribute reports to the map so that there is more of an incentive to do so.

A Twitter Tag Protest in Mexico

Can a single tag on Twitter reverse a bad policy decision by federal senators? In Mexico “#InternetNecesario” seemed to do just that, eliminating a law that was approved by Mexico's Chamber of Deputies to impose a three percent tax on internet access. But can Mexico's extensive community of Twitterers use the platform to influence policy that affects more than just their beloved internet? So far we haven't found any examples, but anyone interested in organizing a political advocacy campaign via Twitter would be well served by reading this case study by Renata Avila. She speaks with Oscar Salazar, Alberto Bustamante, and Homero Fernandez about some of the opportunities and challenges when it comes to distilling useful information from an avalanche of Twitter messages and then turning that information into offline political change. Laura Vidal, our research reviewer for Latin America, comments that #InternetNecesario is an example of what she feels is an increasing trend of citizens taking in the slack when governments fail to consult with civil society and mainstream media fails to hold up a magnifying glass to their actions.

Better Government Through Better Maps

How we govern the land, people, resources, housing, and businesses of our communities depends on our perception of the physical space they occupy. “Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, has its roots in the first World War,” writes Rebekah Heacock, when “the colonial government gave returning Kenyan soldiers land outside of the city center. After Kenya's independence in 1963, new land policies made Kibera into an illegal settlement. Despite this, the area has continued to grow. It now houses as many as 1.2 million people and is widely considered to be one of Africa's largest slums.” But until recently Kibera was largely “a blank spot on the Kenyan map” and aid organizations in the area did not share information with each other or the community at large. Map Kibera, a project started by Erica Hagen and Mikel Maron of Open Street Map, aims to change that dynamic by getting residents of Kibera more involved in creating maps of their own community and publishing information and news about infrastructure and services that are both available and needed. Kibera resident Douglas Namale says in a video published with the case study that the planning department has historically not had adequate geographic information about Kibera which has resulted in poor sanitation services. The collaboratively produced map of Kibera has been integrated into the Ushahidi-based Voice of Kibera, a website that tracks news from Kibera and locates it on a map interface. Readers can subscribe to updates via text message and/or email. Hagen and Maron - both Americans - are committed to staying in Kenya until at least August, but they recognize the importance of long-term attention until the project becomes sustainable and completely managed by local Kibera residents.

Comparing the Promises and Performance of Politicians in Mumbai, India

Vivek Gilani, the founder of MumabaiVotes.com was tired of seeing his family and friends vote for their representatives based on the promises candidates made in the lead-up to elections rather than their actual performance while in office. In 2004 he began building up an archive of media coverage that tracks what local politicians promised during elections and what they actually achieved once in office. The website now includes an impressive archive of articles and videos categorized by politician, political party, and voting district. Not every politician has a complete profile on the website, but many do. I chose a few names at random and searched for information about them on Google; their MumbaiVotes.com profile was almost always the first search result, providing a more comprehensive overview of the politician than could be found in a single article or, most certainly, the politician's own website. In her review comment Aparna Ray points us to Praja.org, a similar project based in Mumbai which tracks the attendance, related issues, and financial assets and liabilities of the city's elected politicians. Both projects are pieces to a larger puzzle, but it would be nice if they shared data so that readers have a more comprehensive overview of the performance, risks, and potential biases of their elected officials. Aparna also applauds MumbaiVotes for their offline outreach, university partnerships, and plans to print out and distribute a voter's guide in the lead-up to elections.

From “Not In My Backyard” to Greater Environmental Awareness

Without any doubt, China presents special circumstances when it comes to documenting online projects that promote transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. Online activity is highly regulated in China and website administrators must adhere to a strict policy of what can and cannot be published online. The difficulty of walking this line is intimated by a moderator of Jiang-Wai-Jiang, a community forum for residents living in Lijiang Garden, Baiyun District, Guangzhou. Lijiang Garden's mostly upper-class residents used the forum to disseminate information and organize protests against a proposed waste incinerator that the government was planning to construct nearby. Through coordinated efforts on the forum they “wrote proposals to relevant government departments, printed T-shirts with slogans, and demonstrated in front of the local supermarket,” writes Carrie Yang, our China regional researcher. Local authorities finally yielded to the protesters and announced that the incinerator would not be built in Lijiang Garden. The moderator of the forum, however, says that the online discussions led to more than just your standard “not in my backyard” activism: residents gained a greater understanding of the China's garbage problem and have begun discussing how the community can become more ecologically sustainable.

Networking Civil Society Organizations in Zimbabwe

Finally, we end in Zimbabwe where Kubatana.net was founded in 2001 to promote greater cooperation and information sharing among civil society organizations and with the general Zimbabwean public. Victor Kaonga spoke with Bev Clark and Amanda Atwood from Kubatana to learn more about how they aggregate information from civil society organizations and shape it into campaigns to change policy. Their website now lists profile pages for more than 230 NGO's, stores an archive of 15,000 documents related to civil society, and claims a mailing list of around 18,000 people. Still, examples of concrete, offline change as a result of the information collected and disseminated on Kubatana remain relatively scarce. We are informed, however, of a recent campaign to encourage Transparency International Zimbabwe to investigate the use of revenue from toll booths which are cropping up on roads and highways around the country.

Conclusion: Small Wins, Tough Longterm Projects

Our first round of case studies show us that online platforms like Discuz!, the Chinese software that powers the Jiang-Wai-Jiang community forum, or Twitter in the case of the “#InternetNecesario” campaign, can be used effectively to reverse government policy decisions and stimulate debate about important issues like waste removal and internet access. But both examples also reveal that such campaigns often depend on stirring the inspiration of those who are most likely to be negatively affected by the policy.

The other five case studies - Adopt a Local Politician, Sithi.org, Map Kibera, MumbaiVotes.com, and Kubatana - reveal the multiple challenges when it comes to building a sustainable community of citizen activists who are willing to regularly publish and disseminate information related to their elected officials and civic issues. Mere internet access is one challenge, as we witnessed with Sithi.org, but basic education about the responsibilities of government and elected officials is another major challenge to the success of projects like Adopt a Local Politician in Brazil.

Two weeks from now we'll be back with another review of case studies from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. You can subscribe to our almost daily podcast of interviews with the leaders of these projects and follow us on Twitter for more updates and links to interesting news stories.

January 19 2010

Announcing the Technology for Transparency Network

logo-450.png

Internet technologies give governments an unprecedented ability to monitor our communication, internet activity, and even the microphones on our cell phones. The Internet, however, also empowers citizens with new tools and tactics to hold their elected officials accountable, increase transparency in government, and promote broader and more diverse civic engagement.

Rising Voices, the outreach and citizen media training initiative of Global Voices Online, has launched a new interactive website and global network of researchers to map online technology projects that aim to promote transparency, political accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. Over the next three months eight researchers and eight research reviewers will document at least 32 case studies of the most innovative technology for transparency projects outside of North America and Western Europe. By thoroughly documenting and evaluating each project with a standard methodology we aim to come to a better understanding of what tactics, tools, and tips are most effective in 1) making government information accessible to the general public in a meaningful way, 2) holding political and corporate leaders accountable to the rule of law and their campaign promises, and 3) promoting civic engagement so that a wider and more representative portion of citizens are involved in policy making and political processes.

Over the next three months we hope to find concrete answers to the following questions: Can technology for transparency projects be evaluated individually for impact, or should they only be seen as part of a larger accountability ecosystem? Does citizen participation in such projects lead to greater overall citizen engagement and more widespread demand for accountable public institutions? Do public institutions change their policies and behavior based on the input from citizen-led initiatives? To what extent does the usage of technology tools drive action around transparency?

The Need

As of January 19, U.S. cellphone users have donated more than $22 million in text-message donations alone. In fact, roughly one-fifth of the $112 million total that the American Red Cross has so far raised for Haiti has come via text messaging. Technology has clearly had an impact on global giving for humanitarian relief efforts. The priority right now is that the money gets to Haiti quickly and is spent as effectively as possible to save lives, and provide medical care and shelter. But in the longterm, as billions of dollars of aid money flow in to help rebuild infrastructure and entire industries, how can both Haitian citizens and donors hold institutions accountable so that development programs are run properly and without corruption?

As traditional media companies are forced to cut their budgets because of falling advertising revenue, investigative journalism and international coverage are the two most common areas to be disappear. David Simon, in his testimony before Congress about the death of the newspaper industry, said that with a vacuum of investigative journalism, “it is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician.” Meanwhile, Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index reveals that corruption is still a severe and worldwide problem.

However, there is also growing enthusiasm about the use of social media as a powerful tool in promoting transparency and fighting against corruption. But how does the use of technology to promote transparency differ across regions, cultures, and types of governance? What skills and expertise are missing from the current technology for transparency projects? What types of relationships have they formed with media, government, and civil society organizations to increase their impact? We will document in-depth as many technology for transparency projects as possible to gain a better understanding of their current impact, obstacles, and future potential.

The Team

Global Voices has long been reporting about uses of digital media and technology to improve governance and fight against corruption. Several veteran Global Voices contributing authors are joined by leading transparency activists around the world to make up our team of researchers and research reviewers. We are also fortunate to count on the experience and insight of a board of advisors made up of the leading thinkers in the field of transparency and good governance.

For those of you on Twitter we have made lists of our researchers, reviewers, and advisors.

The Results

As of today you are able to read three case studies documenting projects based in Jordan, Chile, and Kenya. Ishki.com is a complaint brokerage which collects and organizes complaints from local citizens about the public and private sector. Vota Inteligente uses technology to provide Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials. Mzalendo tracks the performance of Kenya's Parliament by documenting votes, publishing records, and providing analysis and context.

Over the next two weeks these three case studies will be joined by eight others. In addition to publishing at least 32 case studies over the next three months, we will also facilitate 16 discussions on Global Voices that provide more context and background information about the state of transparency, accountability and civic engagement in specific countries and regions. We are also building a toolset of the most effective tools used by the projects that we document. Click on any of the tools and you will see which projects have incorporated it as part of their strategy.

We realize that these are busy times and that few readers will be able to read all of the thorough case studies, background discussions, and tool profiles that we publish. For this reason we have created a weekly podcast that will feature five-minute interviews with leaders of some of the most interesting technology for transparency projects that we come across. You can click on this link to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. So far we have interviews with Waheed Al-Barghouthi of Ishki, Ory Okolloh of Mzalendo, and Felipe Heusser of Vota Inteligente.

At the beginning of May we will also publish a traditional PDF report which highlights the most innovative and effective tools and tactics related to technology for transparency projects. The report will make recommendations to funders, activists, NGOs, and government officials regarding the current obstacles to effectively applying technology to improve transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. It will also aggregate and evaluate the best ideas and strategies to overcome those obstacles.

Our research will complement - and collaborate with - the work being done by like-minded mapping, discussion, and toolset projects including ParticipateDB, Participedia, the International Association for Public Participation, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, ePractice, MobileActive's mDirectory, and LocalLabs.

How to Help

This is a collaborative research project which is open to the participation and input of anyone interested in the intersection of technology and good governance. If you have suggestions for case studies that we should document and evaluate please get in touch via our contact page. If you are interested in contributing as a volunteer researcher you can register for a user account.

You can subscribe to our RSS feed for newly published case studies and to our podcast for interviews with leading doers and thinkers in the field. Please follow us on Twitter and become a fan of our page on Facebook to receive extra updates about daily news and information related to technology for transparency. Finally, if you would like to engage in debate and discussion about the application of technology to improve governance in countries outside of North America and Western Europe, please subscribe to the Transparency for Technology mailing list.

For years now there has been an ongoing debate about whether the Internet is good or bad for democracy. But we have few case studies and even fewer comparative research mappings of Internet-based projects that aim to improve governance, especially in countries outside of North America and Western Europe. Hopefully the Technology for Transparency Network will lead not only to more informed debate about the Internet's impact on democracy, but also to more participation and interest in projects that aim to empower and improve the livelihoods of citizens who were previously excluded from political participation.

Reposted by02mysoup-aa 02mysoup-aa

January 08 2010

A Global Look at Anti-Corruption Day

On January 18 Global Voices will launch the Technology for Transparency Network, a collaborative research mapping of internet projects that promote greater transparency, government accountability, and civic engagement. This is the first in a series of posts that will explore related issues through the eyes of bloggers worldwide. To kick things off we look at how bloggers responded to International Anti-Corruption Day, which was signed into law in 2003 at the United Nations Convention against Corruption and takes place every year on December 9th.

On Space for Transparency, the official blog of Transparency International, Georg Neumann looks back at the state of anti-corruption activism for 2009:

Increasingly, anti-corruption activists have been in the line of attack. Journalists writing on corruption in politics and society such as Sri Lanka’s Lasantha Wickramatunga earlier this year have given their lives. Activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Guatemala or Zimbabwe have faced threats or were being silenced. Anti-Corruption Day stands for a day to remember, recognise and honour these brave and fearless people, who went to prison or lost their lives believing that through fighting corruption they will make the world a better place.

Neumann also notes that 2009 saw the passing of a flawed review mechanism which doesn't require member states to seek input from independent NGO's based in their countries. In a five-minute YouTube video Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, describes the important role of civil society in fighting corruption and improving governance:

But it wasn't all bad news in 2009, writes Neumann. There are now 40 Advocacy and Legal Advice Centers worldwide providing legal advice to victims of corruption. Also, online social media has proven itself a powerful tool in promoting transparency and fighting against corruption. In India, for example, J. N. Jayashree started a wiki to protect her husband whose safety was threatened as a result of his whistle-blowing activities. In Morocco an anonymous anti-corruption activist has begun posting videos to YouTube of police officers accepting bribes.

On Global Voices a number of posts commemorated Anti-Corruption Day last month. Bhumika Ghimire notes that Nepal was ranked by Transparency International as one of the world's most corrupt countries. Linking to other Nepalese bloggers, Bhumika's article shows how corruption in Nepal affects the economy, governance, public works, and even marriage.

Twitpic by Cleudson Fernandes, Twitter user @cleudsonf, published with permission

'Arruda Out'. Twitpic by Cleudson Fernandes, Twitter user @cleudsonf, published with permission

In Brazil violence broke out on Anti-Corruption Day between police and protesters:

Protesters have been demanding the impeachment of the Governor of the Federal District, Jose Roberto Arruda, and his deputy, Paulo Octavio, in addition to a thorough investigation into all parties cited in the bribery scandal that led to a police operation codenamed Pandora Box. According to the investigation, Governor Arruda is the possible head of a R$ 600,000 (approximately $340,000) per month bribery scheme that has benefited allies among district members of parliament, businessmen and government officials.

Transparency HackDay in São Paulo, photo by Alexandre Fugita used under a Creative Commons license.

Transparency HackDay in São Paulo, photo by Alexandre Fugita used under a Creative Commons license.

But there is also reason for optimism in Brazil when it comes to transparency and open governance, as Paula Goés explained a week before Anti-Corruption Day:

The first Transparência [Transparency] Hackday, “two days for hacking into Brazilian politics”, was launched in São Paulo at the beginning of October, and the last camp took place this week, on December 1st and 2nd, in the capital Brasília [pt]. Organized by journalists Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun [both pt], the event has free entry and is an opportunity for software developers, journalists and researchers to gather together to find ways to “scrape” data from official websites and create applications that bring transparency and participation to the political processes.

Global Voices editors also point readers to a number of posts around the blogosphere related to transparency, corruption, and government accountability. Peter Marton looks at the harmful role of corruption in rebuilding Afghanistan. In Ukraine, meanwhile, Petro congratulates the residents of Kabul for sentencing their mayor to four years of prison for corruption and imagines how quickly Kyiv's prisons would fill up if the same laws were enforced in his country. Writing in Registan.net, Alexander Visotzky looks at the corruption charges against Mukhtar Dzhakishev for the illegal sale of Uranium and concludes, “The fight against corruption in Kazakhstan is apparently much more of a political game than an attempt to root out corruption.” Writing from Japan, Scilla Alecci points to Transparency International's Ten Worst Corruption Cases of 2009 in Japan. Finally, writing from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, “Gil the Jenius” asks for tougher punishments against public officials convicted of corruption.

Looking back on anti-corruption activism in 2009 we see that an entrenched culture of corruption is still pervasive worldwide. But we also see a growing online discussion about what can be done to curb corruption, promote transparency, and increase civic engagement. In future posts we'll look more specifically at online discussions and internet-based projects to promote transparency and fight against corruption in Nigeria and China.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl