How can technology connect citizens with governments, and how can we foster, harness, and sustain the citizen engagement that is so essential to anti-corruption efforts?
UNDP has worked on a number of projects that use technology to make it easier for citizens to report corruption to authorities:
- Serbia’s SMS corruption reporting in the health sector
- Montenegro’s ‘be responsible app’
- Kosovo’s online corruption reporting site kallxo.com
These projects are showing some promising results, and provide insights into how a more participatory, interactive government could develop.
At the heart of the projects is the ability to use citizen generated data to identify and report problems for governments to address.
But what about how citizens interact with government generated data?
In the last fifteen years there has been significant progress in the publishing of government generated data thanks to the work of initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership and access to increasingly advanced technology.
Although open data doesn’t necessarily lead to accountability and better service delivery, it can (with the right analytical tools), be used to generate accountability and a more interactive citizen-government relationship.
Therefore, the way in which governments, the media and citizens present newly released open data, is central to any discussion on citizen engagement.
Gone are the days when releasing data in pdf format was an acceptable display of ‘transparency.’
Greater efforts need to be made by governments to release data in machine readable formats, ideally with a level of standardization across ministries so that data can be easily compiled and cross-linked making it more valuable for both the public and for governments.
- The US and the UK are leading the way in releasing data in CSV files and API (application programming interface) that enable easy interaction with the published data. In this region, Moldova is on the right path. Others need to follow suit.
If open data is to encourage and help citizens monitor government performance and make informed choices on the allocation of public services, published data must be put in a comprehensive and engaging format.
- Openspending.org is doing fantastic work assisting governments worldwide to visualize their budgets. Their latest project, assisting the Centre of Public Interest to visualize Bosnia and Herzegovina’s public budget, is due for completion by the end of September.
When it comes to presenting information to the public in an engaging manner, the media is in a unique position to further the open agenda. Journalists can make social problems visible by turning complicated information into comprehensive news articles, graphics, and maps that can promote transparency and expose corruption.
- The recent commissioning of the Open Government Partnership media council shows recognition of the need to get information into the public arena, to distill the critical elements of open data and engage ordinary people.
- Crucial to making this step is training journalists on open data, as UNDP has done in Serbia.
- The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Serbia has also done some great work in visualizing Serbia’s public budget.
Data literacy shouldn’t be exclusive to trained journalists. Even if we have greater transparency and people working to present the information to us, it can only really create value in everyday lives if non-experts can read, interpret, and think critically about the data.
3. Wanted: Citizen experts
As Kenneth Cukier, The Economist’s Data Editor, has discussed, data literacy will become the new computer literacy. Big data is still nascent and it is impossible to predict exactly how it will affect society as a whole. What we do know is that it is here to stay and data literacy will be integral to our lives.
It is essential that we understand how to interact with big data and the possibilities it holds.
Data literacy needs to be integrated into the education system. Educating non-experts to analyze data is critical to enabling broad participation in this new data age.
As technology advances, key government functions become automated, and government data sharing increases, newer ways for citizens to engage will multiply.
Technology changes rapidly, but the human mind and societal habits cannot. After years of closed government and bureaucratic inefficiency, adaptation of a new approach to governance will take time and education.
We need to bring up a generation that sees being involved in government decisions as normal, and that views participatory government as a right, not an ‘innovative’ service extended by governments.
In the meantime, while data literacy lies in the hands of a few, we must continue to connect those who have the technological skills with citizen experts seeking to change their communities for the better – as has been done in many a Social Innovation Camps recently (in Montenegro, Ukraine and Armenia at Mardamej and Mardamej Relaoded and across the region at Hurilab).
On the whole, evaluations are leading to newer models that focus on greater integration of mentorship to increase sustainability – which I readily support. However, I do have one comment:
Social innovation camps are often criticized for a lack of sustainability – a claim based on the limited number of apps that go beyond the prototype phase. I find a certain sense of irony in this, for isn’t this what innovation is about: Opening oneself up to the risk of failure in the hope of striking something great?
In the words of Vinod Khosla:
“No failure means no risk, which means nothing new.”
As more data is released, the opportunity for new apps and new ways for citizen interaction will multiply and, who knows, someone might come along and transform government just as TripAdvisor transformed the travel industry.
What are your thoughts? How can open data reach its full potential?