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Posts Tagged ‘right to information’

Here’s a recap of my panel talk at the Engineers Without Borders, Canada, Annual Policy Forum. (A summary of the wider discussions on Open Government and Community and Economic Development at the Forum is here)

Slide01Open data are having some impact as seen in 4 key areas (according to what I heard at July’s International Open Government Data Conference). These are:

  • economic growth/entrepreneurship
  • transparency, accountability and governance
  • improved resource allocation and provision of services
  • connecting data dots and telling stories the public needs to know

Open data should be part of the public’s right to information, not a service that government can decide whether to provide or not. Open government should include open attitudes, open ways of being, not only open data and use of technology. It should be inclusive and seek to engage those who do not normally participate, as well as those who are already active. It should go further than data about public services and also encompass those aspects that may be uncomfortable and politically charged.

Slide04

Opening data is only a first step – and there are still big gaps. ‘Open’ does not automatically mean accessible, useful, relevant or accountable. Although new ICTs offer huge potential, focusing too much on technologies and data can marginalize a range of voices from the current discussion about (and implementation of) open government initiatives and processes. Much about these processes is currently top down and focused at the international and national levels, or sometimes district level. Community level data would be a huge step towards local accountability work

Slide06We can address the gaps. First we need to understand, acknowledge and design for the barriers and/or challenges in each particular environment, including the barriers of ICT access for some groups; e.g:

  • lack of connectivity and electricity
  • cost of devices, cost of connection
  • lack of time and resources to participate
  • low education levels, low capacity to interpret data
  • power and culture, apathy, lack of incentives and motivation, lack of interest and/or fatalism, disempowerment
  • poor capacity and/or lack of interest by duty bearers/governments (or particular individuals within government) to respond to citizen demand for services or transparency/accountability

We also need to support:

  • consultations with and engagement of citizens in different places, different sectors, economic levels, etc., from the very beginning of the open government process
  • better understanding of what is important to citizens and communities
  • generation of awareness and demand, better local ownership, expectations of responsive government
  • champions within local and national government, strengthened capacity and motivation to collect and share data; strengthened coordination
  • space for dialogue and discussion among citizens, communities, civil society organizations and governments

Slide10Government responsiveness matters. A lot. So when working in open government we need to ensure that if there are ways to input and report, that there is also responsiveness, willingness on government side and the right attitude(s) or it will not succeed.

Open Data/Open Government portals are not enough. I’ve heard that donors know more about the open government portal in Kenya than Kenyan NGOs, Kenyan media and Kenyan citizens.  It’s important to work with skilled intermediaries, infomediaries and civil society organizations who have a transparency mandate to achieve bigger picture, social motivation, large-scale awareness and education, and help create demand from public. But these intermediaries need to strive to be as objective and unbiased as possible. If there is no response to citizen demand, the initiative is sunk. You may either go back to nothing, increase apathy, or find people using less peaceful approaches.

Great tech examples exist! But…. how to learn from them, adapt them or combine them to address the aforementioned barriers? Initiatives like Huduma, U-Report, I Paid a Bribe have gotten great press. We heard from Ugandan colleagues at the Open Knowledge Festival that people will use SMS and pay for it when the information they get is relevant; but we still need to think about who is being left out or marginalized and how to engage them.

Slide08We need to also consider age-old (well, 1970s) communication for development (C4D) and ‘educación popular’ approaches. New ICT tools can be added to these in some cases as well. For example, integrating SMS or call-in options make it possible for radio stations to interact more dynamically with listeners. Tools like FrontlineSMS Radio allow tracking, measuring and visualization of listener feedback.  The development of ‘critical consciousness’ and critical thinking should be a key part of these processes.

Existing successful social accountability tools, like community scorecardsparticipatory budget advocacysocial auditsparticipatory videoparticipatory theater and community mapping have all been used successfully in accountability and governance work and may be more appropriate tools in some cases than Internet and mobile apps to generate citizen engagement around open data.

Combining new ICTs with these well-established approaches can help take open data offline and bring community knowledge and opinions online, so that open data is not strictly a top-down thing and so that community knowledge and processes can be aggregated, added to or connected back to open data sets and more widely shared via the Internet (keeping in mind a community’s right also to not have their data shared).

A smart combination of information and communication tools – whether Internet, mobile apps, posters, print media, murals, song, drama, face-to-face, radio, video, comics, community bulletin boards, open community fora or others – and a bottom-up, consultative, ‘educación popular’ approach to open data could help open data reach a wider group of citizens and equip them not only with information but with a variety of channels through which to participate more broadly in the definition of the right questions to ask and a wider skill set to use open data to question power and push for more accountability and positive social change. Involved and engaged media or “data journalists” can help to bring information to the public and stimulate a culture of more transparency and accountability. Responsiveness and engagement of government and opportunities for open dialogue and discussion among various actors in a society are also key. Community organizing will remain a core aspect of successful civic participation and accountability efforts.

[Photo credits: (1) Phone charging in a community with limited electricity, photo by youth working with the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) program in Senegal; (2) Youth training session during YETAM project Cameroon, photo by me (3) Gaps in open data and open government work, diagram by Liza Douglas, Plan International USA; (4) Local government authority and communities during discussions in Cameroon, photo by me; (5) Youth making a map of their community in Cameroon, photo by Ernest Kunbega]

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Continuing on with the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) related posts…. I’ll be on a panel on Sept 21st talking about how ICTs can contribute to the MDGs. My perspective is less from a top down, big business, giant project point of view. In my work, I look at ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) as tools that children and young people can use to create and access information and to advance their own agendas locally and beyond, and ICTs as tools that organizations (big and small, local or not) can incorporate into their work to improve their efforts to attain development goals (such as the MDGs).

ICTs can be helpful tools for enhancing accountability, transparency, citizen engagement, public debate, participation and local ownership of the development process — all of which help with achievement of the MDGs. (See my post on MDGs through a child rights lens for more reasons why). ICTs and social media can also help organizations do more efficient, effective, engaging and high quality work.

ICTs are not silver bullets or magical elements, however; and they will not solve anything on their own. They need to be well-integrated into programs, and well-contextualized.

One framework I especially like to use for thinking about how organizations can integrate ICTs into their work comes from Hannah Beardon. Hannah suggests that ICTs can be integrated directly, strategically and indirectly:

Directly (Providing Access to ICTs): Mobiles and other ICTs have an immediate and striking impact at the family and community level, connecting people for personal, business and community reasons. Mobile devices save individuals time and money and are indispensable in emergencies and for connecting people to the larger world, such as for remittances and commodity pricing. Mobiles and ICTs can help people access information, improve their education, maintain social networks, participate in governance and community, and generate income.

Providing equipment directly is one way to think about ICTs in development programs. This includes ICT tools such as computers, mobile phones, video cameras, digital cameras, radio equipment, electricity, and Internet access. Often direct ICT support is considered for education programs and efforts focused primarily on ICT training or media projects. Computer centers and classrooms are an example, as is supplying mobile phones to project participants or GPS units for mapping projects or equipment for health programs. If this equipment and the information it collects are managed at the community or local organization level, it can enable people to assess and respond to local development needs in a powerful way.

The availability of ICTs is obviously a pre-cursor to using them in different programs and projects. However I’m not much in favor of development organizations coming in and giving away mobile phones (unless it’s some type of extreme emergency or crisis, I suppose). I’m also wary of external NGOs setting up computer centers or giving large equipment donations because of sustainability and capacity concerns. Care needs to be taken that a non-profit organization is not assuming the role that local businesses or government institutions should be playing. Working in good partnerships with local and national government institutions and local businesses and keeping clear agreements on the roles of all actors, including the community, can help to reduce these risks and make programs more sustainable. Programs that directly provide equipment also need to think carefully about what other elements are required for success (purpose of the equipment, training to use it, ongoing maintenance and repair, electricity/power, a place to keep the equipment safe, local involvement in defining the type of equipment, etc). (See 10 Worst Practices in ICTs in Education).

In thinking about providing direct access to ICTs, one place for NGOs to focus energies is keeping an eye on government ICT policies and plans and strengthening civil society to pressure government to ensure that ICTs (including Internet) are accessible to the population now that more and more information is shared via ICTs. Article 17 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines children’s right to information, including access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of a child’s social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health. States Parties are obliged to (a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child and in accordance with the spirit of article 29; (b) Encourage international cooperation in the production, exchange and dissemination of such information and material from a diversity of cultural, national and international sources; (c) Encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books; (d) Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous; (e) Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being, bearing in mind the provisions of articles 13 and 18. The 2005 World Summit on the Information Society’s Tunis Agenda also provides a useful platform for thinking about advocacy around rights to information and ICTs.

Making a film on birth registration, Cameroon

Strategically (Using ICTs as tools to support development processes): Beyond directly providing ICTs, new technologies can be used in a myriad of ways to support the broader development process. Starting from larger program goals, defining the roles that information and communication play, looking closely at the local context, and then researching existing tools that could be supportive is a good way to start when planning concrete initiatives. (Forthcoming is a second publication by Hannah outlining a good process for local contextualizing and ICT integration into specific programs). If there are no existing tools, a case can be made for developing or building onto a tool or an application.

Mobile phones, as tools for effective and timely dissemination of information, have real potential to strengthen the design and delivery of programs, for example in health, education, household economic security, disaster risk reduction and response, emergency and crisis management, HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, child protection, youth-led advocacy, and water and sanitation. ICTs should be an integral part of local, country-level and broader strategic planning processes and they should be incorporated, where appropriate and relevant, into programs where they can add value, keeping a close eye during monitoring and evaluation on whether their purported benefits are real.

On-going capacity building and exchange at various levels is critical to help program staff become aware of advances in the field of ICTs and to help ICT advisors better understand programs, staff needs and community realities. Conversations across sector and silo boundaries are also critical to ensure that ICT integration is successful. ‘Bridge figures’ are helpful — those persons with good knowledge of both programs and ICTs — to help these processes along. In the absence of someone to serve as a bridge figure, well-structured teams with expertise in both areas should work closely together to take advantage of their specific expertise and to learn from one another.  ICT tools should be selected based on local needs and contexts as well as program priorities, starting with information and communication needs, rather than starting with new ‘breakthrough’ technologies. (Though other sectors often start with the cool technology and see if/how it can be useful). During strategic planning processes, program staff should be analyzing program information and communication needs and working with ICT staff to incorporate technology that may add value and help reach program goals in a higher quality and more effective way. Again, ‘bridge figures’ can be helpful in that process. Monitoring and evaluation are important along the way to check whether adding ICTs is actually helping. Sometimes things work perfectly fine without new ICTs.

Indirectly (Using ICTs to improve efficiency and communication within the organization): The wealth of knowledge and information that a development organization generates and uses needs to be documented, shared and communicated effectively in order to improve impact. Advances in knowledge management and on-line collaboration, including blogs, wikis and other social media tools and feedback mechanisms can bring immediate access to information and real-time discussion. Lower cost technology, notably in the areas of digital mapping, GPS, mobile mapping, mobile internet can help staff to carry out their daily work and improve information sharing and decision-making across departments and to engage and inform the public. Engagement with donors can also be heightened through ICT tools and social media, always taking into consideration the additional burden 24/7 demands can add to staff’s workload, and the child protection and other risks posed by more direct access to communities.

ICTs and social media can help make aid and development organizations more participatory, more agile, and able to pull in information from variety of sources and process it faster. This in turn can help pull people out of their silos and force them to consider new ideas and ways of working and thinking about challenges. Mobiles especially are helpful for better communication with community members and local organizations. Forward thinking organizations should be taking advantage of these new tools to gather direct feedback from those that they are supporting, for better dialog to improve their work, and for devolving helpful information to community members. Mobile data collection, for example, in addition to being a strategic tool for program implementation, can also be a way of improving the quality of data collection and increasing ownership by community members of their own data which support them to take back management of their own development processes from external agents. Mobiles are also a great tool for gathering data quickly from a broad subset of the population; data which can shape rapid responses and emergency interventions.

Twitter and blogging and other web-based services can serve as a springboard for deeper discussions and coordination among different development actors, government agents, institutions and the private sector. Social media is a way to share and discuss lessons learned and challenges faced, and to diffuse information about new ICTs and how they are being used by different agencies and individuals. Global partnerships can easily be initiated, developed and nurtured on-line. Organizations can provide on-line training opportunities to staff and save time and money by using new technologies such as forums, blogs for sharing and reporting, Skype and chat tools, and social networking. These same tools can be used to improve relationships with donors and with partners and staff working in disperse offices. However, in order for any of the above to happen, command and control practices that are common in large institutions and organizations need to be abolished so the tools can be most useful.  Here is an excellent post on use of social media tools in humanitarian work.

3-fold path

Using those three categories to think about ICT integration in an organization’s work can help clarify and strategize. Some initiatives may include all three categories and some may be more focused on one particular category.

In a follow-up post, I’ll share some examples of tools that I find interesting and helpful for organizations working at the grassroots level to achieve broader programmatic goals and to improve local community participation and ownership of the development process.

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MDG related posts on Wait… What?

MDGs through a child rights lens

5 ways ICTs can support the MDGs

ICT related posts on Wait… What?

11 concerns about ICTs and ‘social media for social good’

I and C, then T

Innovate but keep it real

ICT4D in Uganda — ‘ICT’ does not equal ‘computers’

Mind the gap

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

It’s all part of the ICT Jigsaw: ICT workshop in Mozambique

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