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?
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.
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.
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.