Last Tuesday, NDI was lucky enough to hope Anders Pederson to talk about Open Knowledge Foundation’s new project, OpenSpending.org. Understanding how governments spend money is important; It affects the lives of citizens. Governments often claim they spend money “on behalf” of their citizens without any real monitoring of exactly where the money goes once it leaves taxpayer pockets. Perhaps your government announced an increase in spending on education, a position you supported, as part of their election campaign. However, without open and easy access to government spending it is almost impossible to know if that promise was followed through on. READ MORE »
On December 17, the presidency of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution that creates a permanent Laboratório Ráquer or “Hacker Lab” inside the Chamber — a global first. The full text of the resolution in Portuguese is here. The resolution mandates the creation of a physical space at the Chamber that is “open for access and use by any citizen, especially programmers and software developers, members of parliament and other public workers, where they can utilize public data in a collaborative fashion for actions that enhance citizenship.”
The winner was Meu Congress, a website that allows citizens to track the activities of their elected representatives, and monitor their expenses. Runner-ups included Monitora, Brasil!, an Android application that allows users to track proposed bills, attendance and the Twitter feeds of members; and Deliberatório, an online card game that simulates the deliberation of bills in the Chamber of Deputies.
The hackathon engaged the software developers directly with members and staff of the Chamber of Deputies, including the Chamber’s President, Henrique Eduardo Alves. Hackathon organizer Pedro Markun of Transparencia Hacker made a formal proposal to the President of the Chamber for a permanent outpost, where, as Markun said in an email, “we could hack from inside the leviathan’s belly.” The Chamber’s Director-General has established nine staff positions for the Hacker Lab under the leadership of the Cristiano Ferri Faria, who spoke with me about the new project.
Enter the Open Government Guide. It is meant to support the development and then adherence to specific goals in 19 areas currently. These include, for instance, budgets, public contracting, right to information and cross-cutting issues such as parliaments and elections (Disclosure: both of those chapters were contributed by NDI staff.). Each category is divided into initial, intermediate and advanced actions that are also supported by specific recommendations, standards, and case studies. All is presented in a highly accessible visual format. READ MORE »
We talk repeatedly about transparency and civic engagement in our work, and often emphasize that it’s only when governments have the will and capacity to respond to citizen' demands that signficant social change takes place. Improving citizen action and government responsiveness always lies at the nexus of political institutions, local incentives, and power dynamics. Add to this the use of digital technoloy - ubiquitously by citizens, less so by institutions, and you see the need for very smart project design that takes all these factors into consideration. However, projects are often influenced by donors who not always understand how these systems work together. In a positive sign, a new funding mechanism requires strategic design and evidence of government and civil society collaboration up front.
Our friends in the Opening Parliament community have been busy this Fall, and are anticipating the Open Government Partnership (OGP) annual conference at the end of the month. We’ve been impressed by several projects that mashup accountability mechanisms with strong data visualizations, and are highlighting them below. For a full review of parliamentary monitoring accomplishments, find more news crossposted on the Opening Parliament blog.
In the Czech Republic, a Czech and Slovak parliamentary monitoring organization, KohoVolit.eu, has worked to visualize complex parliamentary information through social network analysis. Their visualizations demonstrate how often individual MPs sponsor bills and the collaboration relationship with other MPs (image at right).
Every year the United States gives out around $50 billion in aid to developing countries around the world. This means the United States gives out twice as much in foreign aid as the next four counties on the list of major international donors (UK, Japan, France, and Germany).
So, where is this money going? The U.S. Department of State and USAID have developed a new tool to help in answering that question. In late 2011 the U.S. signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a voluntary multi-national strategy to make information about foreign aid more transparent, accessible, and understandable. Launched in 2013, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard provides a way to view U.S. foreign assistance funds in a standard, easy to understand, format.
The dashoard enables a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the U.S. aid process to examine, research, and track U.S. funding. It presents data in two ways: First, the website presents data in user friendly graphics in specific categories such as funding received by a particular country, sector, or agency. Information can also be accessed in machine-readable form, allowing users to execute manual queries and download data sets.
Critics of the program note that while the Dashboard is a step forward for transparency, agencies have been lagging in posting information to the Dashboard. They have also noted that data on the Dashboard is not presented in a clear format, or that information is incomplete.
Officials of national and local governments who are responsible for responding to citizens’ requests for information must be properly organized, trained, funded, and protected.
Because government touches everything, a FOI law should touch everything.
It should be recognized that a FOI law is most important to average citizens at the local government level.
Many FOI laws are based on a presumption of access, stating that government records are accessible with certain exceptions; the exceptions should be based on the likelihood of harm that could arise as a result of disclosure.
The law should not require that government officers, employees, or agencies go to unreasonable lengths to accommodate applicants.
In an effort to increase transparency and citizen oversight of government spending, a new online project was developed to track government as well as corporate financial transactions throughout the world. Operated by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) and funded by organizations such as the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundation and 4IP, Openspending.org “maps money” by collecting information about government spending across the globe, and presents results in an accessible and engaging manner.
A community-driven organization, OKFN uses technology to promote open knowledge and data, making it easier for citizens to observe how their taxes are being spent by government. Members of the OKFN’s Openspending.org community work together to build tools and online communities that encourage collaboration in the use and production of digital information. As mentioned on the site, the Openspending.org team is comprised of staff and volunteers who constantly discuss and develop new and innovative ways “to monitor and explain budgets and government spending through the use of technology.”
According to the OKFN team, Openspending came about because, as they note "there is no 'global atlas' of spending, no integrated, searchable database which would be a valuable resource for policy-makers and civil society alike. We want anyone to be able to go to their local council or national government, request the data, upload, understand and visualise it and contribute to this 'spending commons', which anyone can benefit from.” READ MORE »
I’m recently back from Electech Afghanistan, an NDI-hosted elections and technology conference in Kabul. The event brought together senior officials from government, civil society, the private sector, and the international community to discuss applications of digital technologies to enhance transparency and participation in the election process.
Ahead of the Presidential elections in April 2014, the Afghan public lacks confidence in the government’s ability to run a credible election and this is diminishing participation and prospects for stability and democratic development. Afganistan is, of course, a supremely insecure environment with low rates of literacy throughout the population.
Participants identified ways that technology could improve participation and confidence by helping election authorities in administration, improving how political parties compete, increasing citizen’s participation, and enabling civil society organizations to observe more effectively, all while allowing journalists such as Pajhwok News to publicly share results and analysis. Discussion focused on the changing nature of political participation mediated by technology.
The Washington Post and others have reported extensively on the now declassified secret court opinion from 2011, which claims that the National Security Administration (NSA) has been illegally gathering tens of thousands of electronically-based communications among American citizens for several years now. An internal NSA audit conducted in May 2012 reported 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to and distribution of legally protected communications from April 2011 to March 2012.
As part of their bulk surveillance program, the NSA has put pressure on numerous companies to release information about their customers. In early August, Lavabit, an email service used by Snowden and approximately 400,000 other people, shuttered its operations after rejecting to comply with a court order to help the US government spy on its clients. Founded in 2004 and owned by Ladar Levison, Lavabit email services used asymmetric encryption to provide a significant level of privacy and security for its users -significant enough that US intelligence agencies could not crack it. Under gag order, Levison was prevented from discussing in detail the reasoning behind his company’s shutdown. On the Lavabit website Levison left a cryptic message for users regarding his decision:
“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on--the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise.”
We have been reading a new report from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy “Diplomacy, Security and Development in the Information Age”. Edited by Shanthi Kalathil, the collection of papers relates directly to organizations using tech in international development activities. We are particularly impressed with Joseph Siegle’s article: “Managing Volatility with the Expanded Access to Information in Fragile States.”
Siegle addresses a range of issues ranging from civic participation to the potential marginalization and radicalization of individuals in fragile states - all of interest to us. Siegle interestingly notes that information is a central aspect affecting the stability of fragile states. He finds explicitly that information and communications technologies can serve as both an opportunity and a threat to societies in such states. He notes that channels by which information is conveyed are essentially value neutral, and rightly illustrates that it information itself and the context are the critical factors to investigate.
Siegle’s insight is important for all implementers of tech in development as they initiate projects around the world. Information can increase transparency and oversight if it is accurate and unbiased and contextulalized by actors experienced in political organizing. Similarly, platforms for open democracy can shine light on corruption and political abuse if advanced by groups (such as media or citizen organizations) with credibility.
Among the tactics Siegle highlights is parallel vote counting. Siegle states: “Election monitoring groups are able to conduct parallel vote counts (Parallel Vote Tabulation, PVT) at each local polling station and report these results back to a central headquarters,enabling real-time projections that challenge dubious official results.” Much of the data collection and reporting of election data is done via SMS and sophisticated back-end parsing and analytical engines to ensure credible analysis by monitoring organizations. NDI recently assisted in a PVT with our local partner ELOG in Kenya. READ MORE »
So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above. READ MORE »
Last week was Internet Freedom Day - a year after a bill attempting to restrict content online, the so-called SOPA/PIPA bill, was defeated in the United States Congress. We here at NDItech are people of the Internet. We believe, as described in the Declaration on Internet Freedom, that
a free and open Internet can bring about a better world. To keep the Internet free and open, we call on communities, industries and countries to recognize these principles. We believe that they will help to bring about more creativity, more innovation and more open societies.
But, we are worried. As an organization that supports and works for democratic principles and practices, empowered communities, and responsive and accountable governments under the rule of law, and, as a unit within this organization that believes and works on the effective and innovative use of technology in this work, we see troubling trends. READ MORE »
People experience political change and electoral competition not as a series of numbers and results but as an experiences and narrative in building a democracy. When collecting massive amounts of data as part of a systematic observation process, it’s important for election monitoring organizations to be able to tell a good story, often simplifying the conclusions to a few takeaways. These conclusions still need to be evidence-based and representative requiring an honest accounting and analysis. But in our experience, a systematic analysis told in a compelling way is something few election monitoring organizations are able to do effectively. Often, the story of an election is outsourced to journalists or political actors. Simple data-visualization can help - together with a smart and sound strategy on how to deply them. READ MORE »
The Open Government movement that has been groundbreaking in getting governments to open up their vast data sets on the delivery of services, is seeing a new frontier: Parliaments. Opening Parliament, a project led by NDI, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency released its groundbreaking Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, a set of principles that has been signed by more than 80 organizations that are monitoring parliaments. Parliaments and their data on bills, amendments, and proceedings are on of the big frontiers for open government advocates that are now beginning to see traction of their work to open up legislative bodies the world over.
We took a look at some of the exemplary parliamentary monitoring organizations and how they are presenting parliamentary information to get a sense of the state of affairs in parliamentary openness. While we have a long way to go to present legislative data in compelling ways that tell effective stories about key issues, legislation, and legislative processes, there are some interesting examples of groups all over the world that are worth highlighting.
Newpublik.nl from the Netherlands features a great timeline of media coverage of specific bills, mixing different data sets to create context to legislative data that gives a viewer a sense of how a specific bill fits into the current social context. Adding additional, contextual data such as news coverage makes parliamentary data far more useful.See for instance this dossier.READ MORE »
Often discussions of technology for (fill in the blank here) get confused about tools, techniques and processes. This is especially true when the discussion turns to crowdsourcing, a technique where a group of individuals voluntarily undertake a task. In an electoral context, crowdsourcing often emphasizes participation over systematic evaluation. The use of online maps (a tool) emphasizes analysis and story-telling based on geographically relevant conclusions, at the expense of other analytical frameworks.
Instead of tools and techniques driving strategic decision-making, it’s important to identify intended outcomes and the processes supporting those outcomes.
In a recent NDI "ElecTech" workshop in Nairobi, we posed that any use of tech in elections should have as the primary outcome the ability to assess and evaluate the electoral process. We think it is helpful to think about four specific processes, a series of actions taken to achieve an end, where technology can significant impact the achievement of these outcomes.
These include: Organizational Structures, Data Collection, Telling a Story and Outreach. Let's focus on organizational structures first.
Organizational Structures: Having Your Ducks in a RowREAD MORE »
The latter, policy development, is central to the conference series, and we discussed ways that smart applications of technology can improve the outcomes of policy development.
As we’ve witnessed in the last few years, the “internet public” reflects the changed nature of human beings as social and civic individuals. As part of this phenomenon, new connections are increasingly important, and pertinent information gets shared rapidly. One driver of these tools for political use has been the perception that political bodies are self-interested, dysfunctional, and don’t represent citizen interests. We’ve seen citizens rebelling against this order in ongoing Arab Spring uprisings, the Occupy Movement, and newly founded political parties and organizations. READ MORE »
If there's a statute of limitations on event-blogging, this update probably exceeds it - thankfully, innovations in government transparency and citizen monitoring are always timely. Three weeks ago, Facebook teamed up with the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer to host a "Congressional Hackathon." While no actual hacking took place during the event, it was a great opportunity to collaborate and brainstorm new ideas as part of an ongoing conversation about demand for legislative data, standards for sharing, and how to modernize constituent relations. Congressman Darryl Issa even announced a new platform that allows individuals to collaborate and mark up legislation with their own proposals and suggestions. READ MORE »
Happy opening day of the UN General Assembly, folks! While half of Manhattan grumbles about the traffic snarls caused by an endless stream of motorcades, I always enjoy watching the pomp and protocol of the General Debate. But while the “will they or won’t they” of the Palestinians at the Security Council steals the big headlines, yesterday also brought big news in government transparency: the Open Government Partnership.
At last year’s General Debate, President Obama announced that “In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable.” The Open Government Partnership brings together eight founding countries to help fulfill that promise. They’ve developed initiatives to improve the availability of government information, support increased civic participation, and develop new technologies for sharing and accountability. The first projects under development include real-time expense reporting in Brazil and a citizen water reporting in Tanzania – and 38 additional countries have pledged to develop their own openness plans. READ MORE »
ICT in the service of “peace” often refers to a broad range of activities encompassing conflict prevention and management, peace operations, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and post-conflict peace building and reconstruction.
For example, the ICT4Peace Foundation is committed to effective communication in “crisis management, humanitarian aid and peace building”. A recent USIP collaboration, Blogs & Bullets examines how new media can change the politics of unrest, revolution, violence, and civil war. Their work emphasizes five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.
NDI’s approach to ICT & Peace has focused on how key tools can help communities and stakeholders improve communication, facilitate negotiations, increase transparency, and build trust.
Democracy assistance is often seen as falling in the range of activities associated with peace building and conflict resolution, as democratic institutions help maintain peace by providing mechanisms for managing or resolving conflicts without resort to violence. READ MORE »
YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms are not exclusively - or primarily - a tool for political activism, despite the sense you'd get from folks like us writing about them. This is a good thing.
People living in closed societies are mostly just living, like everyone everywhere. Most content generated, whether media or text, isn't going to targeting a thuggish government; folks are going to share random slices of their life. Except for the few activists. That low ratio is important.
Mao nailed it on insurgency strategies: the guerilla is a fish that swims in the sea of the people. That's what is going on here. If a big swath of the people are using, say, YouTube as part of their life, a complete block or shutdown is going to be wildly unpopular. The masses will be more pissed at the government and sympathetic to the activists. READ MORE »
There is a lot of talk about political activism in the tech for development and democracy space. We often discuss capturing evidence or documenting abuses using cameras and phones; citizen journalism and citizen reporting using blogs, SMS or other social media; crowdsourcing reports on to web-based maps; or circumventing repressive regimes to gain access to the Internet - often to share the evidence or access the social platforms we use to share our experiences.
Lots of great technologies, lots of courageous activists and citizens, and lots of international support for these efforts.
However, it seems to me that a big piece of the puzzle isn't very clear - how are these technologies and political activities supposed to bring about the desired poltiical change? What process do these actions support? What is the theory of change?
This post attempts to fill in some of that gap by explaining a common approach that NDI coaches groups to use in combination with all these great technologies: political process monitoring. READ MORE »