We had the privilege to meet Miro Ščibrany when Restart Slovakia kindly let us crash their gala a few weeks ago. Miro’s project, www.račan.sk was one of seven (very impressive) citizen-led projects – the finalists that came out of an open call for innovative ideas related to public space, transparency, anti corruption, good governance and the rule of law.
We were inspired by all the projects and the people behind them, and found ourselves wondering what makes ordinary citizens – teenagers, busy professionals, and seniors – devote their time and energy to these issues? So when we ran into Miro at an open debate on citizen empowerment through new technology, we asked him if we could interview him about his web project, www.račan.sk and what motivates him.
Question: Tell us about your website, račan.sk – what can people do there?
Answer: www.račan.sk is a web portal for the inhabitants of the Bratislava municipality of Rača. It’s an alternative to the official site www.raca.sk, which is funded from public resources. That content is decided on by the municipality, and presents the successes of the mayor and local government, rather than factual insider information on the management of public affairs.
As an alternative, content on račan.sk is created by people who live in Rača, and is materially and financially independent from the management of the municipality and thus totally free, aimed at critical reflection of reality.
Every citizen who requests it, can have his or her own personal page http://name-surname.racan.sk on the portal and publish ANYTHING that is not against the law of the Slovak Republic.
Citizens reflect what is happening in the municipality, either as non-anonymous authors of articles or as (non-)anonymous authors of comments. The portal administrator will post content for people over the age of 60, if they lack the technical skills to publish their own content.
Many cities and towns in Slovakia have civil portals with a similar focus as racan.sk, many of which are well known for their critical attitude to political elites.
A special feature of our website is that it is based on free and open-source technology, focuses on (we’re moving in this direction more and more) the flow of public money, the visualization of revenue and expenditure, a clickable budget, and raising public awareness of citizens and their participation in the management of the municipality.
Q: Why did you start this project? What motivated you to create racan.sk?
A: Initially (2007 to 2011), racan.sk was strictly focused on the history and traditions of the village of Rača and the memories and stories of people living there. In 2012, in connection with efforts to promote the establishment of a local museum and gallery, we encountered lukewarm support on the part of the municipality for our idea. The justification was a lack of resources.
So we became interested in the structure and flow of public finances. We’ve come to two conclusions:
1) The alleged lack of financial resources is partly caused by hidden group interests and partly by wastefulness, and
2) We must make the flow of public money transparent and involve ordinary citizens to oversee the process – they are best suited to resist corruption.
We realized that people need information about income and expenses in a visual, more user friendly format and we started to look for suitable visualization tools and solutions.
We found that with similar intentions and for similar purposes, visualization tools are being developed by several teams abroad (including in the United States, Great Britain and Germany). We like IBM’s Many Eyes free site and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s (open source) OpenSpending portal, and we decided to take or adapt their solutions to the needs of our municipality.
Q: The perception is that people don’t care about getting engaged, but your example proves the contrary. What prompts you to devote some of your free time to getting involved in local governance?
A: The main source of my motivation is a long and frustrating realization that political elites – starting from the central government and ending with the local ones – manage public resources in a wasteful way, and that they tend to exploit them to their advantage.
An additional motivation was a sense of responsibility to the generations of our children and grandchildren: my generation (60+) was unable to oppose neither the communist regime nor the regime that succeeded it after 1989 – the elites and their methods have remained largely the same, they have just changed the communist jerseys for the jerseys of Democrats, post-privatization owners and entrepreneurs.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles you face, and what are you learning?
A: The biggest obstacle is that even though there are data in the municipality’s information systems, citizens get them through the internet in a form that is not very machine-readable.
If you want to visualize information on income and expenditure, you must dig laboriously through PDF files, convert them, and check the data.
The Ministry of Finance has some data in centralized databases, but there is a lack of information about it, and public authorities are not yet accustomed to providing data to interested citizens.
Q: What’s the feedback from people living in Raca? Who’s using the site?
A: People in Rača, as elsewhere, are only very slowly overcoming the resignation of the past, but their reactions to račan.sk are mostly positive. I believe that gradually they are adopting the idea that it makes sense to be concerned about what is happening to their money and to public property, that things can be changed, and that it is worth it to keep trying, so that we can change them once and for all.
So far, our website only has about 20 to 25 authors (Rača has about 20,000 inhabitants), including two members of the local council (one from the right-wing, the other from the left).
Article readership ranges from several tens to several hundred, sometimes several thousand – depending on the topic. The highest readership goes to critical and investigative articles that dig under the surface of the “official,” rose-colored or foggy reality created by official local media, with controversial content triggering polemics.
The age of visitors to the site ranges from 25 to 85 years. The authors are mainly aged 40 and over, and four authors are over the age of 80.
Q: Any surprises? What’s in the future? Is there interest from people in other municipalities to have something similar?
A: Surprises? An unpleasant surprise is that for the last 20 years, the municipality has been controlled by political interest groups that are accustomed to excluding people from decisions on public affairs.
A pleasant surprise is that the youngest generation of local politicians appear to be honest people who understand the need to communicate with citizens, to inform and involve them in decision-making on important public issues.
For me personally, another source of optimism is the amount of work being done by several non-profit think tanks and organizations in mapping the public space and their portals with interesting analyses of local governments.
Interest from other municipalities appeared only in connection with the Restart Slovakia contest. Until then, we were preoccupied with ourselves and our local problems, and didn’t have much time and energy left, not even to look around and find allies. I believe that this will change in the near future.