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.
There is an election in a week, you want to poll the citizenry before the election, and your financial resources are limited. What should you do? Should you (A.) Give up because it is simply not possible to get a full-fledged poll out in the field. (B.) Beg your donor to give you a last minute cash infusion to bring on more staff and a polling company. (C.) Join the 21st Century and leverage technology to generate a fully randomized national telephone poll using a platform like Voto Mobile. Voto Mobile's goal is to make interacting with an audience via mobile phones - either one-way via broadcast or two-way in an interactive fashion -- easy and inexpensive.
Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to sit down twice with developers and staff from the socially conscious start-up Voto Mobile. Based out of Kumasi, Ghana, Voto Mobile has the straight-forward goal of “Mobile Engagement, Simplified.” The company is leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world to enable both research and social engagement that offers CSOs, NGOs, Political Parties and other organizations new capabilities. READ MORE »
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.
Earlier this month, I sat in an auditorium with political scientists, civic start-ups and data geeks that were prompted to answer the question: Can open data improve democratic governance?
NDI supports projects that deal with opening up government data, particularly in emerging democracies (such as these examples on our sister site Openingparliament.org). We, along with many of our partners engaged in this work, believe that open data can improve governance by facilitating better decision-making and potentially help build trust in and engagement with policy makers. With better information, citizens and governments are also able to ultimately make better decisions.
At the event “Can Open Data Improve Democratic Governance” hosted at U.C. Berkeley, presenters focused on how policymakers can better benefit from data use, i.e. how open data can improve democratic governance. Participants also discussed achievement gaps in order to understand how the open data community should evolve in order to improve governance outcomes.
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 »
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead
For the last week I have been holed up with approximately 60 computer scientists, activists, and social scientists from around the world at the Connaught Summer Institute hosted by CitizenLab at the University of Toronto. The individuals gathered here are some of the top minds in monitoring internet openness and rights. For the last 5 days, each of us has either presented a paper, case studies, or posters on issues most people never think about, but should.
We have engaged one another in a cross-disciplinary give and take. The problem this institute seeks to address, as identified by the CitizenLab, is a lack of dialogue occurring between academic disciplines and with academia and activists on the ground. The entire goal, as it has become apparent, is to begin the process of blurring the boundaries between the disciplines and with activists. READ MORE »
NDI's Governance and NDItech teams are co-convening, with illustrious partners (Omidyar, International IDEA, CDDRL at Stanford University, Google.org, and other) a conference in the next few days on how democratic institutions respond to and more effectively to a global citizenry that is empowered with technology in unprecedented ways. Democratic institutions -- parliaments, parties, and governments - are under pressure to perform more efficiently and effectively, to open their often opaque ways, to be more accountable to their citizens - in short, to govern better. Around the world, established and emerging democracies are struggling to adapt to citizens who are mobilized with phones, tweets and Facebook pages. They are often slow to change and reluctant to give up old paradigms of power and access to (or withholding of) information.
Those with vested power are learning that the gatekeeping functions such as access and control of and to information is no longer possible in a socia media and tech-empowered world. At the same time, there is a contraction of civil liberties and freedom of expression online and tech is being used against democratization efforts. One participant describes this as a "cut and paste" movement of autocratic governments learning online from each other on how to surveil, restrict, and limit their citizenries with technology.
One #tech4dem participant put the challenge well: "The game has changed. You can not find the existing reality, you have to come up with a new one."
A new report published in the UK examines the role that technology plays in providing citizens access to information and events related to Parliament. The report: “#FutureNews - The Communications of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World,” provides an interesting look at a strategic approach of the UK to increasing the openness of White Hall. It's long been evident that technology is diversifying the media through which citizens consume news and entertainment. It's also clear that it is incumbent upon governments to keep up with citizens to maintain transparency and accountability in democratic processes. Using new technologies and media strategies, the report argues, Parliament must insert itself in to the public debate and add substantive value to the the political conversation.
Following are key findings from the report and a brief discussion on how these takeaways are applicable in the developing world from an NDI Tech4Dem perspective. READ MORE »
Given my instinctive cringe whenever I hear the term "innovation" these days, the word may a wee bit overused. However, it the concept remains as important as ever - if organizations aren't trying new things, they're stagnating.
As a global organization working with partners in a lot of different country contexts, though, I sometimes have to check myself and remember that innovation lives in local contexts. NDI's supported scores of sophisticated election monitoring missions across the world using the Partial Vote Tabulation system, including most recently in Kenya. The methodology's a tried and true one - I'll write it up soon - and has been used for over a decade. From a global perspective, it ain't new.
Given their shiny new democracy and the fact they've only had one real fair election in generations, any form of election monitoring is new. Moving to one that requires thousands of citizens across the country to work in concert with an extraordinary degree of accuracy is a big deal. READ MORE »
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 »
The Inter-Parliamentary Union has released a new guide for members of parliament on how to use social media. It is not the flashiest guide, and it does not go on for pages about the potential uses of social media that would benefit an MP. The guide does provide, however, the essentials for how to approach social media use within parliaments. It makes no assumptions about the knowledge level of the reader, and provides basic information about what social media actually is, and gives examples. The guide is exactly what members of parliament need to read to start thinking about social media use.
The guide covers areas often neglected areas, such as copyrighted material, privacy, and how to measure effectiveness of social media use. The piece emphasizes the importance of strategic planning, of sufficiently staffing, and of training staff members. It also provides helpful charts on what to consider before starting social media campaign and even on how to respond to different types of posts (see below)
The publication does not provide the magic key to creating the Facebook page that will gain ten thousands of "Likes", or the Twitter account that will garner the most followers. It is honest in stating that "There is no right answer; how you use social media will be inﬂuenced by a wide variety of on- and oﬄine variables." That honesty and the focus on strategy, make this guide a great starting point for any government organization seeking to enter the world of social media. READ MORE »
NDI is presenting a number of papers at a Stanford University conference entitled: “Right to Information and Transparency in the Digital Age: Policy, Tools and Practices”. The conference “seeks to bring together people engaged in law, policy, social movements, administration, technology, design and the use of technology for accessing information.” Two papers by Chris Doten and Lauren Kunis from NDI looked at information access and political participation in West Africa.
Chris Doten’s paper, “Transparent Trees Falling in Empty Forests: Civil Society as Open Data Analysts and Communications Gateways,” specifically focuses on access to and analysis of election data. NDI worked with Coalition for Democracy and Development in Ghana (CDD) in the recent Ghana election. In the context of election data, in particular, Doten suggests there is a need for solid and publicly available analysis of available data and promotion of that analysis through various media, including publishing of raw data. Without analysis and public distribution through a variey of channels, election data is like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods with no one hearing it. By providing access and analysis Doten suggest that there is the potential for a better informed citizenry. READ MORE »
Strengthening Parliamentary Accountability surveys the amazing work of parliamentary monitoring organizations around the world that are working with parliaments to hold them more accountable, make them more responsive, and ultimately better serve citizen needs. The guide is part of the work of NDI's Opening Parliaments initiative.
What is Lulu? Glad you asked. It is the service we used to publish and distribute the books. Following a formatting guide for how to upload, we were able to create a template through Google Drive, making it easy to upload the content into proper formatting and then used Lulu to convert into an epub. After some tinkering, guide was submitted and approved. After a bit more waiting, the ePub was placed on the iBookstore and Nook bookstore for free distribution, and free downloading.
Keep an eye out for more NDI publications on iTunes, and look for us to pop up in the Kindle bookstore soon.
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 »
NDItech mourns the death of Aaron Swartz who killed himself on November 11, 2013. Aaron was a fiercely brilliant programmer, a passionate advocate for an open and free Internet that supports and promotes freedom of information, and a true democracy activists in the very essence of that word. Aaron Swartz was 26.
The projects Aaron worked on impact our lives here at NDI every day: Open data feeds using RSS, news and opinions on Reddit, a simple way to write via Markdown, secure web browsing in Chrome via HTTPS Everywhere, a way to share and reuse content using Creative Commons, and a more free Internet thanks to Demand Progress that used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights, to name just a few of his astounding accomplishments.
Changing the world to be better, more true, and more free animated Aaron. Wired.com editor Kevin Poulsen said it well, articulating the loss of Aaron to the world:
“Worthy important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.”
We are deeply saddened by his death. In this tribute we are posting his inspired speech to the Freedom to Connect conference last year, describing how he and Demand Progress fought against SOPA/PIPA, the online censorship act that was ultimately defeated. Here he describes what drove him to become involved in this fight for a more free, open, and equitable Internet and ultimately, world.
Our deep condolences go to his his family, his partner, and his friends in our Internet tribe.
Like any large organizations, the Liberian Legislature is a complex minefield of relationships. I'm lucky that I have my coworkers here; I may be a dilettante that pops in and out of countries, but my colleagues have spent years working with Liberia's political institutions and building relationships with the elected members and staff. This combination is one of NDI's great strengths, and it's incredibly useful when thinking how to shepherd development projects through an organization. Particularly when you're talking tech, a fly-in-fly-out engagement is almost doomed to failure, as institutional change is really the name of the game, not air-dropping shiny new tools.
With the 53rd Legislature's priorities coming into focus from our various meetings of the last week and elements of a workplan falling into place, we on the tech modernization team began crafting a new strategy on how to move forward. The biggest gap, we saw, was finding the right internal champions. In the 52nd Legislature we had a number of excellent partners to work with who had a vision for how the legislature could be stronger in the future; however, as I explained last time, there's been a lot of turnover and those left have been playing musical chairs. 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 »
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley
Someone will have to get back to me on what an agley is, but I'm pretty sure the basic idea holds true for development.
I've returned to Monrovia to pick up the threads of a technology modernization plan for the Legislature of Liberia. I spent two months there last year doing an assessment and creating a workplan for how the organization could leapfrog into the 21st century. At the time we went through the standard best practices in quality developmental program design to arrive at a plan that was a joint vision of NDI and the legislative leadership, and launched initial implementation. The basic framwork was a new joint legislative technology center staffed with crack geeks; cabling the building for network access; a wide-ranging training program; a legislative website; and introduction of open-source software. Plan in place, I headed back to the US and turned to other programs.
Then something happened to the program. Er, more accurately, nothing happened with the program. READ MORE »
I will be working with the pioneers at NDItech, and the creative program staff in the NDI offices that are using tech in innovative ways to support representative democracy in areas such as citizen participation, elections, open parliaments, strong parties, and accountable and transparent institutions. Democracy and governance, as the field is affectionately known by those inside it, is where I started more than 20 years ago, and I am thrilled to return to it, throwing into the mix creative uses of online technologies, new media, and mobile (of course). And while 'innovation' is a much-(over)used term these days, I'm hoping to put our own imprint and interpretation on it as a part of the growing #tech4dem field. READ MORE »