The following are my notes from the session “Enhancing Government Transparency and Accountability through Technology Platforms” at the World Movement for Democracy conference in Lima, Peru.
Matt Bannick, the managing partner of Omidyar Network, begins the session by noting that both the use of technology by activists in the Arab Spring and by the Iranian government in the crackdown against activists following that country’s Green Movement demonstrate the increasing prominence of technology in democratic development worldwide.
Bannick briefly describes the work of Omidyar Network, which was founded in 2004 by Pam and Pierre Omidyar on the belief that hat every person has the power to make a difference.
Omidyar Network began investing in transparency and accountability initiatives in 2006, and so far has deployed over USD $60 million in the support of such initiatives. It aims to empower people with information about how government works and to support technology and media platforms through which they can hold their leaders accountable and bring about positive social change. Bannick says he believes that innovative uses of technology and widespread access to mobile phones fundamentally transforms the relationship between the governed and the governing in a very positive way.
He then introduces the four panelists, all partners of Omidyar Network, noting that they represent the cutting edge of the technology for transparency movement. They are: Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity (US), Ellen Miller of Sunlight Foundation (US), Felipe Heusser of Smart Citizen Foundation (Chile), Swati Ramanathan of Janaagraha (India), and Femi Longe of Co-Creation Hub (Nigeria).
Nathaniel Heller describes Global Integrity as a convener and supporter of the global transparency and accountability ecosystem. With offices in Washington DC and Capetown, South Africa, it aims to push the whole field of transparency toward faster innovation by identifying and supporting the best ideas, initiatives, and technology. This three-minute video offers a quick panorama of their approach:
Heller mentions several specific initiatives that aim to accelerate the innovation and impact of the transparency field. In its early years Global Integrity managed a network of over 1,500 researchers spread across 120 countries that collected data about hundreds of indicators. At first they did this by emailing Microsoft Excel spreadsheets around the world, which inevitably ended up introducing errors into the data. As a result, they developed Indaba, an online platform that creates simple workflows to manage distributed teams of researchers that work collaboratively, often without every meeting in person. Indaba has been used by Publish What You Pay to facilitate their recent Global Aid Transparency Index, by the World Wide Web Foundation for their Web Index and by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness to measure access to information on municipal government websites in Mexico.
Global Integrity also manages the Networking Mechanism within the Open Government Partnership to share best practices among federal governments that are introducing open government reforms. Most recently they have opened an Open Government Hub in Washington DC to bring together like-minded organizations in a single physical space, and they are currently accepting “half-crazy” proposals to support high-risk, experimental prototypes for innovative transparency and accountability initiatives with the Innovation Fund.
Finally, Heller notes that Omidyar Network has been especially supportive in helping Global Integrity think through alternative revenue sources to help promote their sustainability and limit their dependence on philanthropic donors. Last year the New York Times covered Global Integrity’s efforts to generate revenue through a parallel consulting firm called Foglamp.
Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, says her organization believes firmly that open networks create spaces of participation and greater access to information that challenge closed, hierarchical systems. It’s not just that information is power, notes Miller, but, quoting Clay Shirky, “disproportionate access to information is power.” Sunlight Foundation is committed to making democracy work for all by bringing a bit of Silicon Valley to Washington DC.
She mentions four specific projects that are demonstrative of her organization’s approach: Political Party Time, Influence Explorer, Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, and Scout, a regulatory and legislative alert system which enabled a partner NGO to stop an amendment to proposed legislation that would have exempted foreign companies from FOIA.
Smart Citizen Foundation
Felipe Heusser, the executive director of the Chilean Smart Citizen Foundation, begins by pointing to research by the Latinobarometer polling group that has found that more than half of surveyed Latin Americans say they don’t care if they live in a democracy or dictatorship so long as there is economic and social progress. Felipe believes that this disillusionment with democracy is rooted in inequality and the lack of channels to participate for citizens who don’t belong to the economic and social elite. Such dissatisfaction has expressed itself recently in the Chilean student protests for greater access to education, the widespread protests against extractive industries that benefit only a few, and against the high costs of basic commodities, which disproportionately affect the poor.
Heusser points to four specific projects developed by the foundation that are representative of its approach.
- The first is Candideit (pronounced “candidate”), which can be rapidly deployed by any group that wants to better inform voters of how their interests align with the proposals of their candidates. It was deployed in Argentina for the last presidential elections and is currently being used in Chile for the upcoming municipal elections.
- Acceso Inteligente is an FOI request platform and archive that enables citizens to search through FOI requests as well as the government’s responses to those requests.
- Inspector de Intereses crosses data between what legislators own (in terms of stocks in companies, for example) and how they vote. When the system identifies a potential conflict of interest, it notifies users so that it can be investigated by researchers, bloggers, and journalists.
- Finally, Del Dicho al Hecho is an ongoing monitoring platform that compares what Chilean President Piñera said he would do during his campaign and what he has so far accomplished in office.
Heusser concludes with a one-minute video that cleverly demonstrates his organization’s approach without using any words at all:
Swati Ramanathan says she founded Janaagraha in Bangalore, India with her husband Ramesh in 2001 after having lived abroad in London and New York City for a decade.
There are three main dimensions to Janaagraha’s work that are critical to transform urban governance, and without which Ramanathan believes the aspirations of millions of citizens will remain unfulfilled:
- Building the capacity of the state. Most developing democracies struggle with poor policies and institutions. Local governments espcieally have weak capacity and are ill-equipped to think through and implement necessary reforms. A critical priority, says Ramanthan, is to develop the policies, institutional design, and processes that are democratic and meet citizens’ aspirations.
- Improving the ability of the electoral process to deliver political legitimacy. The influence of money on politics is always discussed, but what has gained little attention, according to Ramanathan, is how voter lists are maintained in cities with a highly mobile urban population. The possibility of manipulating electoral outcomes reduces political legitimacy and creates a dis-enchantment with democracy itself.
- The third dimension to is that of transparency, accountability and participation.
She presents two projects that represent this third pillar. In April 2010 they launched I Paid a Bribe, a platform that allows users to anonymously report incidents of petty bribery. Over 22,000 reports have been submitted so far, and the platform has been replicated in Kenya, Greece, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan. Analytics of submitted bribe reports are available at their Bribe Patterns website. Next year Janaagraha plans on bringing together all the initiatives and researchers worldwide who are interested in the use of crowdsourcing technologies to combat corruption. Earlier this year the New York Times covered I Paid a Bribe and the many similar sites it has inspired.
The second project is I Change My City, which provides residents with information about how to become civically engaged in their local communities and governments. So far it focuses on Bangalore, but they plan on expanding to other cities throughout India.
Lastly, Femi Longe presents Co-Creation Hub, a co-working space in Lagos, Nigeria that leverages shared space, access to technology, and access to the best ideas in order to bring about social and economic prosperity. They help Nigerian social entrepreneurs in a range of activities from the initial excitement of “I have a great idea” to bringing the product to market and scaling up its impact.
Femi notes that, unlike the other panelists, his organization is not solely focused on transparency and accountability; however, they are increasingly interested in how new technologies can help young Nigerians become more involved in the governance of their nation. This new interest began when Femi and his colleagues realized that Nigeria was ranked far below countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. So why weren’t Nigerians taking to the streets to demand more democratic and transparent governance like their peers in the countries of the Arab Spring? They concluded that most Nigerians simply weren’t aware of the level of corruption and illicit influence in their country. They decided to invite local programmers to a hackathon to develop tools that increase transparency and participation.
Out of that hackathon emerged two platforms that Femi describes in greater detail: a budget monitoring platform called Your BudgIT and the Nigerian Constitution for All project, which has developed mobile applications for BlackBerry, Android, Nokia and Java-enabled phones.
Soon Co-Creation Hub will host a “Hack Bootcamp for Trade Transparency,” which aims to provide Nigerian consumers with information on how trade-related costs and trade barriers affect them.
What Works, What Doesn’t Work, and How to Replicate Success
During the discussion period there are three main questions:
- What do we know hasn’t worked, and what have we learned from those experiences?
- How do we know what is working?
- Once we know what works, how do we replicate it as fast as possible?
Regarding what hasn’t worked, Femi Longe of Co-Creation Hub warns that it’s important to distinguish impact from hype. A lot of people are excited about the potential of using new technologies to improve governance, but so far there are few case studies of demonstrable impact. It’s also important to keep in mind that this is a new sector, and even the “veteran” organizations have only been around for about five years. He offers the example of Ideas 2020, which was meant to support the ideas of local entrepreneurs so that Nigeria could meet its goal to be among the top 20 economies in the world by 2020. Ultimately the platform wasn’t able to attract broad usage. For Femi, it was the experience that underlined the importance of having an entire ecosystem in place — and not just a web platform — in order to achieve impact.
Ellen Miller of Sunlight Foundation admits that her organization probably overestimated the interest that US citizens have in issues around good governance. One example is Inbox Influence, a fascinating plugin for Gmail that gives users information about the campaign contributions by the companies that send them emails. At least it was fascinating for everyone who works at Sunlight Foundation; but they were disappointed by the overall use.
Matt Bannick of Omidyar Network asks the panelists, how do we know what does work? How does the field measure its impact?
Felipe Heusser says transparency and technology are tools, not objectives. They must be employed intelligently to achieve other objectives. He uses the example of the “Citizen Balloon.” Earlier this year his organization used a helium balloon and a mobile video camera to live-stream the Chilean student protests, which were purposely ignored by the country’s mainstream media. At one point over 10,000 viewers tuned into the live video, which forced other media outlets to report on the story.
Ellen Miller emphasizes that the sector is young, but that in the past five years it has been very successful at making the transparency agenda much more visible in the media and in political debate. Her team visualized the number of times the word “transparency” was mentioned in the New York Times from 1990 — 2009 and found significant growth:
Nathaniel Heller of Global Integrity distinguishes between outputs and outcomes. Outputs might be the number of site visits, downloads, and registered users, but outcomes refer to institutional changes. He says his organization is less interested in reaching the largest number of individuals, and more interested in reaching the individuals who are capable of bringing about institutional changes. One example is the State Integrity Investigation in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and Public Radio International, which developed road maps for states like Florida to improve their accountability.
Swati Ramanathan, on the other hand, says it’s important not to discount the importance of mass participation. Politicians and decision makers are more likely to respond to advocacy campaigns when they believe it will affect election outcomes and public perception.
Finally, Bannick asks the panelists for strategies to replicate the best ideas and approaches to makes sure that they impact as many lives as possible in the shortest time frame.
Ellen Miller of Sunlight Foundation points out that all of their code is open source and available for download at GitHub, but even so, adapting software to different linguistic, cultural and political contexts can be very time consuming.
Felipe Heusser of Smart Citizen Foundation says that they are working with the British group MySociety to take a modular approach to software development. Tom Steinberg of MySociety has written more about that new approach here. So far they have developed the MapIt component and are now working with Smart Citizen Foundation to develop two more components for parliamentary monitoring.
Nathaniel Heller hopes that more technology for transparency platforms will use “software as a service” models that don’t require NGOs to install and update software on their own servers. This is the approach that Global Integrity has taken with Indaba, which has enabled them to make iterative improvements to the platform without requiring their partners to constantly update software. It also has allowed them to collect a sizable repository of data that they can easily cross and compare.
Femi Longe of Co-Creation Hub concludes by noting that making software easily replicable is one challenge, but it’s not the only one. It has become so easy, for example, to install Ushahidi to monitor elections that during the last Nigerian election there were no less than 12 different, competing websites that attempted to crowdsource reports of electoral fraud. In addition to software that is replicable, says Femi, we also need more spaces that encourage collaboration among like-minded actors.