What follows is a hyperlinked version of my talk at this year’s re:publica conference in Berlin. For a 30-minute talk it was probably a little dense, a bit abstract, and maybe too close to home for a Berlin audience, but here it is nonetheless.
This morning Evgeny Morozov showed us how how governments are using the internet and new technologies to surveil and monitor their citizens. He was followed by Jeff Jarvis who managed to invite everyone here to get naked with him, and also pointed out the benefits of personal transparency. So we have the government looking at us. And we have ourselves looking at each other. But now I want to look more closely at some projects and platforms in which we monitor the activities of our government.
Specifically I want to tackle three questions: one, what do we mean when we say ‘transparency’? Two, what does the loss of investigative journalism mean for our ability to hold our government’s accountable? Three, what is the potential of technology to bring about more government transparency and accountability in the future?
Two False Assumptions
Before I get started I must first offer my apologies. I promised myself that I would make no mention here of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, or of the Stasi, or that movie that we Americans love so much, The Lives of Others. But, in fact, the Stasi and the story that is depicted in the Lives of Others perfectly illustrate a tension that exists in all societies, but is now taking new shapes with the influence of technology.
The very metaphor of transparency suggests a medium through which we view things and through which others can view us. This metaphor makes two important assumptions, as J.M. Balkin has noted. First, it assumes that what is on one side of the transparent medium is conceptually separate from what is on the other side. Second, it assumes that the process of seeing through the medium does not substantially alter the nature of what is being viewed.
Of course, both of these assumptions are false. The surveillance techniques of the Stasi are now infamous and I don’t think that I need to name all of them, especially here. But what is interesting is that the Stasi had one spy for every 66 citizens of East Germany. And when you add part time informants to the formula, some calculations estimate one spy per every 6.5 citizens. Who was surveilled and who was surveilling? It is often more difficult to differentiate each side of the transparency window than we assume.
The Stasi stored huge amounts of data about the citizens of East Germany. It sifted through their garbage, collected samples of their sheets and underwear in order to someday match their odors, and most famously tapped phone lines to listen to their phone calls. The point was to spread fear as much as it was to collect information. As common as government surveillance of citizens was and continues to be, the fall of the Stasi also illustrates another natural impulse that has been at the heart of investigative journalism over the past few hundred years and that is citizens demanding both information from their government.
On January 15, 1990 a large crowd formed outside of the Stasi headquarters and demanded access to the information the Stasi had collected over the previous 40 years. This process is still ongoing today and has been a painful part of German reunification, but it reveals to us a change that is taking place in many countries around the world as they transition from societies where only the government surveilled its citizens to what David Brin calls “The Transparent Society,” where citizens and governments surveil each other.
From the Fourth to the Fifth Estate?
In front of a US Senate committee about the future of journalism, David Simon, the producer of my favorite television show ever, The Wire, said this – and I’m paraphrasing: “without investigative journalists, it’s going to be a great time to be a corrupt politician in this country.” In his statement to the Senate he held little regard for bloggers, saying that we just copy and paste the content of newspapers and sprinkle on top our own coffee shop opinions. So I wanted to examine this statement more closely. Is it really true that mainstream journalism prevents corruption of government officials? And, if so, will that process disappear as the institutions of mainstream journalism disappear?
The best book I was able to find about the role of news media in improving governance was just published last year. The book is Public Sentinel (pirate link), which is edited by Pippa Norris. It charts the idea of the press as a Fourth Estate, an institution that exists primarily as a check on those in public office.
As Thomas Jefferson famously said: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
There are many examples and countless movies based on stories that reval how investigative journalism ensures justice, transparency, and accountability. Beyond investigative journalism, the press also monitors the day-to-day workings of government in order to help citizens assess the efficacy of its performance. Watchdog journalism can expose the corruption of a traffic policeman, the wrongdoings of a priest, or of billion dollar financials scandals. The best investigative journalism doesn’t doesn’t just expose corrupt individuals, but entire systems that are flawed and in need of reform.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when many countries moved from authoritarian to more democratic styles of governance a new industry called media development was born. The assumption was that a healthy press would lead to healthy democracies. So donors like the Ford Foundation, the United States government, and the World Bank began funding projects that would train reporters and editors in investigative journalism as well as the business side of the news industry. Many of these projects began in the former Soviet Union, then spread to the Balkans, and are now common in Africa and Southeast Asia. But there are criticisms of watchdog journalism too. Some observers argue that that the adversarial nature of watchdog journalism erodes trust in governments and institutions, and presents the government as more inefficient and wasteful than it really is. Others say that a constant barrage of reporting about scandals desensitizes people to actual instances of government corruption. There are even suggestions that in countries that are new democracies, watchdog reporting can lead to dissatisfaction with democracy itself and lead to riots and chaos. In Asia there are criticisms that western style watchdog journalism doesn’t lead to the type of social harmony that is valued in Asian societies.
Watchdog journalists have come up against two major obstacles to their work – the state and the market. The state censors their work and threatens their safety. The market demands that they make their work entertaining enough to sell newspapers, magazines, and website subscriptions. In many countries the media industry has been privatized to shield it from government control only to find that there is now no business model to sustain the work that goes into investigative journalism. This has led to a lot of concern about the decline of the fourth estate, but also to a lot of excitement and enthusiasm about the rise of the so-called fifth estate – networked citizen media platforms.
One of those platforms that has received a lot of attention over the past week is WikiLeaks, which published this video of US soldiers firing on a van that was picking up an injured journalist. WikiLeaks is a site where any citizen whistleblower can anonymously upload a leaked document that exposes wrongdoing. Here is its founder Julian Assange on Russia Today:
Jullian makes an important distinction between the source information and the contextualization of that information which informs the public and shapes public opinion. As he says in the video, there was a Washington Post reporter who apparently had access to this video or at least the transcript, which he incorporated into his story. But increasingly reporters are not the sole custodians of source information. Rather than relying on journalists to procure and distribute information from the government to citizens, we now see a new approach where citizens demand information from their governments and use online tools and platforms to make sense of that information collectively, and use it to hold their leaders accountable.
The Role of Technology in the Transparency Movement
A lot of attention has been given to projects like They Work For You in Britain and OpenCongress in the United States, but there has been much less attention given to transparency and accountability websites and tools in developing countries. For the past five years I have been working for an organization called Global Voices, where we have been tracking bloggers and citizen media projects from around the world. Often times we would come across citizen media projects that specifically aim to improve governance in their countries, but we didn’t have the resources or time to evaluate these projects and their impact in a systematic way.
Fortunately we were approached by two funders – Open Society Institute and Omidyar Network – who wanted a better understanding of the role of technology in the transparency and accountability movement, and so at the beginning of this year we launched the Technology for Transparency Network to document 40 case studies of technology projects that aim to promote greater transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. In addition to documenting the projects we are also building a toolbox of the tools and applications they use, and a series of blog posts examining questions related to transparency in the six regions we are focusing on.
We have found four major categories of projects so far:
Ishki – In September 2008 four Jordanian technologists developed Ishki.com to collect and organize complaints from local citizens about the public and private sector. Their goal is to eventually expand the mission of the project so that the complaints lead to conversations, solutions, and finally to better policies and responsiveness by companies and government officials. Though dormant for most of last year, the site has since relaunched with new features and remains active today.
Kiirti – Similar to Ishki, Kiirti serves as a single platform to collect complaints from residents of major cities around India. Unlike Ishki, which is built on Drupal, Kiirti uses Ushahidi to accept complaints via SMS and then visualizes them on a map interface.
Penang Watch goes one step further than Ishki and Kiirti. In addition to collecting and categorizing complaints from citizens, the volunteers behind the site harass city council officials until the complaints are at least answered, if not resolved. Their persistence has, for example, led to the shutting down of illegal shops in Georgetown’s UNESCO world heritage neighborhood.
Cidade Democratica – Unlike Penang Watch which serves as a bridge between citizen complaints and city officials, Cidade Democratica aims to motivate citizens to come up with their own solutions to civic problems. It’s important to note that social platforms don’t only offer new ways for citizens to interact with elected and appointed officials; they can also create new frameworks to think about how citizens govern their own communities without relying on traditional government structures. Cidade Democratica is a Brazilian platform – with most activity taking place in São Paulo – where users can submit both problems and solutions to those problems. There have been some policy decisions – such as the creation of bicycle paths in Jundiaí – which resulted from discussions and proposals originating on Cidade Democratica.
Mzalendo – Co-founder Ory Okolloh explains that the idea for the project came about after the website for Kenya’s Parliament was shut down following protests by some MPs who were embarrassed about their CVs being published online. The initial goal of Mzalendo, then, was to provide the basic information that otherwise would have been available on the official parliamentary website. 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.
Vota Inteligente – Profiles all MP’s, political parties, and election candidates in Chile in order to keep Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials. Prior to the election they evaluated the election websites of the major presidential candidates and found that on average they only published around 20% of the necessary information for voters to make an informed decision. After using mainstream media to put pressure on the candidates, the candidates’ websites were quickly filled with more informative content.
Mumbai Votes – 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.
Sudan Vote Monitor – Today (Wednesday April 15) is the third and final day of the Sudanese election, the first multiparty election to take place in Sudan in over 20 years. Sudan Vote Monitor is one of many Ushahidi-based websites we have reviewed that allow voters to report irregularities by submitting text messages which are then verified by a partner NGO and placed on a map. Similar websites include Cuidemos el Voto in Mexico and Vote Report India.
VoteReport PH is yet another example of an Ushahidi-based website to crowdsource the reporting of voter fraud and election irregularities. But most of these projects only attract the participation of very few users because there is not broad awareness that the websites exist at all. VoteReport PH is different in that for the past six months they have been going around the country and giving voter education classes about how to use automated voting machines (which are being used for the first time next month), and simultaneiously they also teach people how to submit reports to VoteReporter PH by sending text messages. We’ll find out next month if this pre-election voter outreach leads to greater participation on the platform.
Guatemala Visible aims to bring about more public accountability and transparency around the process to which officials, such as supreme court justices, are appointed to public office by elected politicians. Like most countries, Guatemala has a long history of political appointments based on connections, campaign donations, and favors. Guatemala Visible uses social media to let politicians know that citizens are monitoring the appointments of judges and other officials, and to let citizens keep better track of the process.
In the US we recently passed the largest economic stimulus program in our country’s history. And to track how that money was spent the government created Recovery.gov. ProPubica similarly created Eye on the Stimulus which also tracks how the money is spent. In Kenya they had their own stimulus program called the Constituency Development Fund which started in 2003 as a way to fund local governments to improve their local infrastructure. 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.
Our Budget – The city council in Tel Aviv, Israel – like most municipal governments – releases its annual budget in PDF format. All the data is there, but there is no way for citizens to visualize or analyze expenses. So this project uses OCR technology to create an Excel spreadsheet version of the city budget. Volunteers go over and check every entry, and then they make visualizations and graphs of how the municipality is spending taxpayer money. But, importantly, in the end they decided that litigation was a better strategy than time-consuming, technological solutions.
Dinero y Politica – In Argentina, political parties must disclose all of the campaign contributions they received at least two weeks before the election. But they only have to disclose those numbers in a PDF report, which, once again, doesn’t let citizens analyze the data to see relationships between political interests and politicians. So this group has created an interactive database which maps donations and creates visualizations of which parties receive donations from which companies and labor unions.
Then there are a few projects which don’t really fit into any of the above categories. For example, in Brazil there is a very simple project which asks Brazilian bloggers to each adopt a local city politician and blog about the activities of that person on a weekly basis. Though the project has a few problems that we’ve documented, it’s also a very nice way to let elected officials know that their actions are being watched and I believe that every city should have a similar program.
Finally, I want to end with a project based in Kenya that reveals the importance of maps in deciding how we allocate resources in our communities. This project is called Map Kibera and it’s the first available online map of Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya. I like this project because it shows just how difficult it is to build up enough information in a community to start influencing policy and accountability on a systematic basis. A group of Kibera residents were given GPS devices and taught how to map their own community. Now they are being trained to use Flip video cameras and local cyber cafes to report news about their community which shows up on this map.
The Power and Perceived Danger of Information
Allow me to conclude by coming back to modern day Germany. With German Reunification in October, 1990 came an intense debate about what to do with the stacks of files the Stasi kept about the lives of East German citizens. While many argued that the files should be opened, others insisted that the information remain closed. Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière even predicted murders of revenge against former Stasi employees if the files were made accessible. There was a fear that East Germans were not ready to see the information collected about themselves. This argument – that the general public is not fit to handle information about their community and themselves – is often used by governments and institutions as an excuse to hold private that which should be publicly disclosed.
Back to Kibera. In a video published on YouTube, resident Douglas Namale says that the local planning department has historically not had adequate geographic information about Kibera which has resulted in poor sanitation services.
In fact, much of the information collected by development groups and the Kenyan government is not shared with Kibera residents. Robert Neuwirth explains in his book “Shadow Cities” how a study commissioned by the United Nation and World Bank found that, on average, Kibera residents pay ten times as much for water than the average person in a wealthy neighborhood with municipally supplied, metered water service. The study was distributed widely at development conferences, but was never shared with Kibera’s own residents for fears that it would lead to rioting.
“Perhaps it’s true that people in Kibera could riot over water,” Neuwirth allows. “After all, Kibera has been the scenes of riots in the past … Still, Kibera’s people deserve to know the facts about their lives. What’s the point of studying the water kiosks of Kibera if, when the study is done, the information is not shared with the people who are most at stake?”
If projects like Map Kibera succeed, then such information does not need to be shared with the people … they will share it among themselves.