Civic tech & open data

My key question here is: in what ways and to what extent do ICTs enable transparency and accountability (in developing countries)? I see ICTs here as civic tech (technology which enables better services and empowers citizens) as well as open data.

Citizen feedback versus civic engagement

Many organizations (like the World Bank) consider citizen engagement as feedback on their development projects – like sending a feedback SMS on satisfaction (see our World Bank book for examples such as Fadama in Nigeria, CheckmySchool in the Philippines and many others). On the other hand, civic engagement is broader and includes non-project specific social media discussion  (think Arab Spring or Brexit). In his post on “civic tech having won the name game”, Tom Steinberg from mySociety recognizes civic tech as both the first and second – both narrower citizen feedback and broader civic engagement. He makes the distinction between:

  • Tech that’s all about improving government services (where I would place the citizen feedback services)
  • Tech that’s all about citizens exerting and obtaining power (where I would place broader, non-project specific platforms for political discussions)
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Praekelt Foundation’s B-Wise Youth Engagement Platform in South Africa

I’m interested (and have experience) in researching both, but what is also revealing is how the two are mixed up – what happens when a user of a World Bank project wants to question the project itself? How much leverage do they have on the platform? When working on two World Bank books, I constantly ran into the discussions on whether we were talking about a citizen, a beneficiary or a user.  How participatory is participation?

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UNICEF’s UReport in Uganda has become well-known as an SMS-based feedback/mobilization system. But one of our interviewees in our Digital Lives research, who was a UReporter, said he preferred social media to check the “pulse of the nation”. Photo (c) UNICEF Uganda/2013/Yusuf Atef

What is the best civic tech?

Another question which often comes up is –  what is the best technology for civic engagement, particularly in low-income contexts? Mobiles may be the fast growing technology but community radio shouldn’t be forgotten for more multi-lateral, open discussions (see Well Told Story in Kenya in bridging different media).

There is also a lack of consensus on whether we should focus on low-end tech such as SMS, or look at social media too, given the rising rate of internet access through mobile phones.  In 2016, Linda Raftree, Matt Haikin and I did a quick project for Praekelt Foundation and ONE.org asking: what are the critical success factors in using mobiles for civic engagement? I interviewed 12 experts including from mySociety, SIMLab (who were behind Frontline SMS), VOTO Mobile, Christian Aid Kenya and Facebook’s civic tech team and there were differing opinions on whether we should use SMS and radio or whether we should shift the focus to social media – WhatsApp, Facebook and others. And then if we do, what are the ethical implications, including bias, elite capture and questions of algorithmic accountability?

What is the impact of open data?

The question of impact was foremost for me as the Open Data Research Lead for the World Wide Web Foundation, working with a CAD $1m grant open data in Asia and Africa, funded by IDRC as part of the Open Data for Development network.

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The Africa Open Data research kick-off in Dar-es-Salaam, 2015

Personally, I feel open data rhetoric in developing country contexts has been similar to technology transfer of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s not that it’s impossible (see the 17 case studies from 13 countries from the Web Foundation) but it’s more that I don’t think enough attention is paid to the key challenges of governments either being unwilling (political and social challenges) or unable (economic, technical constraints) to open up data.

When I was in Addis Ababa for the High Level Conference on the Data Revolution in Africa in 2015, advocating open data, I happened to go past the Central Statistical Agency (photo below). The photo just shows how different the context is to the UK and US  (not to mention the government regime of Ethiopia).

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In these contexts, intermediaries are  critical both in advocacy and in the practicalities of making data meaningful. And intermediaries are just one factor amongst many to ensure impact. The Web Foundation has this excellent graphic for a conceptual framework on open data:

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So while research is ongoing, I think we have mixed evidence on the impact of open data, because it is early yet. Labs like the Web Foundation’s Open Data Lab Jakarta, Code for Africa and ILDA (La Iniciativa Latinoamericana por los Datos Abiertos) are critical intermediaries working hard to open up data but we are all still working out the process before we can see major impacts of open data in developing countries.

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Visiting Transparency International Indonesia to understand their use of open data

Freedom of information

FOI / RTI (right to information) runs parallel to open data. Over 100 countries around the world have passed Right to Information laws, yet for most of us it is an opaque process to find and request any kind of government information, much less to get it within the usual stipulated 30 day period.

In 2014, Tom Longley and I evaluated the impact of online FOI platforms around the world, interviewing 27 Alaveteli implementers in the European Union, Australia, Bosnia, Canada, Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kosovo, Liberia, Macedonia, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Uruguay, as well as non-Alaveteli FOI site implementers such as Acceso Inteligente in Chile, MuckRock and iFOIA in the USA, Open Data Georgia, and FragdenStaat in Germany. We found a lot of challenges – government evasiveness, a “quick and dirty” journalism culture which can’t wait 30 days for a reply and so on, but we also produced a list of 10 critical success factors for impact.

But there still remains to be a lot of research to be done on FOI impact – including how it is currently being overshadowed by the open data focus, and what gender-specific insights we might get from FOI requests (and responses).

There is definitely a “friendly tension” between the FOI and open data communities (my colleague Silvana Fumega’s post). Silvana has a great comparison of the two:

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The challenge is that governments may be distracting us – citizens – with an emphasis on open data that is old, irrelevant and just useless for anything. An internal World Bank report mapped Kenya Open Data Portal data on schools against GPS co-ordinates and found many of the co-ordinates were just open fields – so where were the schools which resources were being paid to? This is no different in other countries. Maria Zuffova presented this slide at TicTec 2016 on the difference between open data on data.glasgow.gov.uk and data requested through FOI law in Glasgow on WhatDoTheyKnow. The difference is stark:

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And so, we need more research on how the two paths to more participatory civic tech can work together more efficiently and effectively.

Monitoring and evaluating the impact of civic tech

Finally, we need to understand how to monitor and evaluate civic tech. How do we know what is working and what is not? The key questions of sustainability and scalability always arise. How do we ensure responsible civic tech and open data? In 2016, a team of us worked with the World Bank in producing a guide to monitoring and evaluating civic tech – or what we called there digital citizen engagement. The guide covers all these issues and more, with inputs from a number of experts as well as case studies from Brasil, Cameroon, Kenya and Uganda. I look forward to working more in this area!