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Archive for the ‘open government’ Category

Bruce Lee explains why many open data and technology-led initiatives go wrong.

(See minute 1.14).

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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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policy forum

This past Monday I had the opportunity to join Engineers without Borders (EWB) in Calgary, Canada, at their Annual Policy Forum on Global Development to discuss “How can open government contribute to community and economic development?”

Morning panels covered some examples of open government initiatives from Finland, Ghana and Canada. In the afternoon we heard about some of the challenges with open data, open government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Table discussions followed both of the panels. The group was a mix of Canadian and African government representatives, people from organizations and groups working in different countries on open government and open data initiatives, and young people who are connected with EWB. The session was under Chatham House Rule in order to encourage frank conversation.

Drawing from such documents as the Open Government Partnership’s Open Government Declaration, Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson’s “The New Ambiguity of “Open Government,” Beth Noveck’s What’s in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov and Nathaniel Heller, A Working Definition of ‘Open Government’, the following definition of Open Government was used to frame the discussions.

EWB Definition of Open Government

Below (in a very-much-longer-than-you-are-supposed-to-write-in-a-blogpost summary) are the highlights and points I found interesting and useful as related to Open Development, Open Data, Open Government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

1.  Participation thresholds need to be as low as possible for people to participate and engage in open government or open data initiatives. You need to understand well what engagement tools are most useful or comfortable for different groups. In some places, to engage the public you can use tools such as etherpad, wiki platforms, google docs, open tools and online collaboration spaces. In other places and with other populations, regardless of what country, you may be more successful with face-to-face methods or with traditional media like television and radio, but these need to be enhanced with different types of feedback methods like phone calls or surveys or going house to house so that your information is not only traveling one way. Community organizing skills are key to this work, regardless of whether the tools are digital or not.

2.  Literacy remains a huge challenge hindering access to information and citizen engagement in holding government accountable in many countries. This is why face-to-face engagement is important, as well as radio and more popular or broad-based communication channels. One participant asked “how can you make open government a rural, rather than an urban only, phenomenon?” This question resonated for participants from all countries.

3.  Language is still a critical issue. Language poses a big challenge for these kinds of initiatives, from the grassroots level to the global level, within and among countries, for citizens, governments, and anyone trying to share or collect data or information. It was noted that all the countries who have published data to IATI are publishing in English. All the IATI Standards are in English, as is the entire support system for IATI. As one participant noted, this begs the question of who the information in IATI is actually designed for and serving, and who are the expected users of it. Open data initiatives should consider the implications of language they publish in, both politically and practically.

4.  Open data can serve to empower the already empowered. As one speaker noted, “the idea that everyone has the potential to make use of open data is simply not true.” Access to digital infrastructure and educational resource may be missing, meaning that many do not have the ability to access, interpret or use data for their own purposes. Governments can also manipulate data and selectively release data that serves their own interests. Some questioned government motives, citing the example of a government that released “data” saying its unemployment rate was 10% when “everyone knew this to be false, and people grumbled but we did not feel empowered to challenge that statement.” Concern was expressed over the lack of an independent body or commission in some countries to oversee open data and open government processes. Some did not trust the government bodies who were currently in charge of collecting and opening information, saying that due to politics, they would never release any information that made their party or their government look bad.

5.  Privacy rights can be exploited if data is opened without data protection laws and effort to build capacity around how to make certain data anonymous. Citizens may also not be aware of what rights are being violated, so this should also be addressed.

6.  Too much open data discussion takes place without a power analysis, as one participant commented, making some of the ideas around open data and open government somewhat naïve. “Those who have the greatest stake will be the most determined to push their point of view and to make sure it prevails.”

7.  Open data needs to become open data 2.0. According to one participant, open data is still mostly one-way information delivery. In some cases there isn’t even any delivery – information is opened on a portal but no one knows it’s there or what it refers to or why it would be useful. When will open data, open government and open aid become more of a dialogue? When will data be released that answers questions that citizens have rather than the government deciding what it will release? The importance of working with community groups to strengthen their capacity to ask questions and build critical consciousness to question the data was emphasized. A counter point was that government is not necessarily there to start collecting information or creating data sets according to public demand. Governments collect certain data to help them function.

8.  Intermediaries working on open government should be careful of real or perceived bias. Non-profits have their own agendas, and ‘open data’ and ‘open information’ is not immune to being interpreted in non-objective ways. Those working on civic engagement initiatives need to be careful that they are not biased in their support for citizen initiatives. One presenter who works on a platform that encourages citizens to be involved in petitioning new laws for contemplation in Parliament said “Our software is open source so that anyone can set up a similar process to compete with us if they feel we are biased towards one or another type of agenda.”

9.  Technology-based engagement tools change who is participating. Whether in Finland, Canada, Ghana or Malawi, it’s critical to think about reaching those who are not active already online, those who are not the typical early adopters. To reach a broader public, one speaker noted “We are going to remote places, doing events in smaller towns and cities to see how people want to influence and take part in this. Making sure the website is accessible and understandable.”

10. Technological platforms are modifying how political parties and democratic processes operate. This may or may not be a good thing. Normally priorities arise and are discussed within political parties. Will people now bypass the party process and use ‘direct democracy’ channels if they are passionate about an issue but do not want to enter into negotiation around it? Will this weaken political processes or longer standing democratic processes? One speaker considered this change to be positive. People are not happy with being able to vote every 4 years and they want opportunities to participate in between elections cycles and direct voice in how priorities are decided. Others questioned whether bypassing official processes can lead to less participation and more apathy overall on national issues. Some questioned whether within fairly long-standing democracies, open data will have any real impact, considering existing levels of apathy and the lack of political participation.

11. Strong information, statistical, monitoring and evaluation systems are critical for open data and open government processes and to ensure more effective management of development results. This is still a challenge for some countries that need to review their mechanisms and improve their tools and processes for data collection and dissemination. If there is no data, or no current data, there is not much point in opening it. In addition, there are capacity and technical competency challenges within institutions in some countries. One participant mentioned a lack of current government geological information about gold and oil deposits that weakens government capacity to negotiate with the private sector extraction industry and ensure partnerships and earnings will contribute to national development. In addition more evidence is needed on the impact, use, and outcomes of open data. At the moment it’s quite difficult to say with any real authority what the outcomes and impact of open data and open government have been.

12. IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) needs more partners. Government representatives noted that they are opening their data, but they can only open the data they possess. In order for data on aid to be useful, more data is needed, especially that of NGOs who are implementing programs. Not many NGOs have published their information to the IATI standard at this point. “The really interesting thing will be when we can start mashing up and mapping out the different kinds of information,” as one speaker noted, “for example, this is the goal of the Open Aid Partnership. It will involve combining information from the donor, development indicators from the World Bank, and country information, and this will open up amazing possibilities once this is all geo-coded.” There are reporting challenges related to IATI and open government data, however, because at times countries and NGOs do not see the benefits of reporting – it feels like just one more top-down administrative burden. There are also issues with donor governments reporting their committed intentions and amounts, recipient governments reporting back, and communications with citizens on both sides (donor and recipient countries). One example that was reported to be enjoying some success was the multi-donor budget support initiative in Ghana, where development partners and government work together to establish development indicators and commitments. If the government delivers on the indicators, the development partners will then provide them with the funding. Development partners can also earmark funding to particular areas if there is government agreement.

13. We need more accountability towards ‘beneficiaries’.Currently many of these initiatives are perceived as being focused on donors and donor publics. As one participant noted, “the interesting thing is less about government and more about getting regular people involved in these processes. When you engage the public you’ll engage government leaders in thinking they will need to change to respond to what citizens are asking for.” Another noted that the essential issue is the link between transparency/accountability and citizens and their own governments. In addition, as one participant asked, “How can you strengthen capacity among citizens to ask the right questions about the data that’s being opened?” For example, citizens may ask about the number of schools being built, but not ask about the quality of education being provided. Public education was a strong focus of discussions around citizen engagement during the policy forum.

14. Should citizens be consulted on everything? however, was one big question. The public at large may not understand the ramifications of its own deep misunderstandings on particular issues and may be inputting from a viewpoint that lacks scientific evidence or fact. “It’s one thing to have an opinion about whether your child should be able to drink energy drinks before age 16, it’s another to input about technical programs like the best policy for green energy,” commented one group.

15. Can citizens really have greater participation if government is still in control of data? was another big question. An example was given of an open consultative process that became unwieldy for a local government, which then shut down the consultation process and changed the nature of the documents to ‘administrative’ and therefore no longer open. Others asked why governments pat themselves on the back over being part of the Open Government Partnership yet they do not have Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) or they prosecute those who open data in alternative ways, such as Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

16. If citizens don’t get a response from government (or if they don’t like the response, or feel it’s biased or manipulated), apathy and cynicism will increase. It’s important to make sure that ‘open government’ is not just a box that gets ticked off, but rather a long-term change in mentality of those in power and deeper expectations and efforts by citizens for openness and participation in conversations of national importance.

The conclusion was that Open Government is somewhat of a paradox, rooted in aims that are not necessarily new. Open Government strives to enable leaders in their communities to create change and transform their lives and those of people in their communities. It is a complex process that involves many actors and multiple conflicting goals and interests. It’s also something new that we are all learning about and experimenting with, but we are very impatient to know what works and what the impact is. In the room, the feeling was one of ‘radical pragmatism,’ as one participant put it. Open Government is a big idea that represents a big change. It’s something that can transform communities at the global level and there is a great deal of hope and excitement around it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the challenges associated with it in order to address them and move things forward.

I’ll do a follow up post with the points I made during the panel as this post is clearly way too too long already. Kudos if you are still reading, and a huge thanks to the organizers and participants in the EWB policy forum.

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I’m just home after a week at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki (and wishing I could have cloned myself and attended each of the 13 streams!):

Here’s a video summary of some of the highlights of the Open Development stream.

Thanks so much to everyone who organized, supported, funded and attended the sessions!

Also see:

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OK Festival is in full swing here in Helsinki, and if today is anything like the past two days, it will be full of information and exchange on everything “open.”

A number of us have been working hard to pull together the Open Development Stream, which started yesterday and which followed very nicely on Tuesday’s fantastic series of panels on Transparency and Accountability (with a heavy focus on the Open Government Partnership and Open Data) and the Open Data Journalism and Visualization streams.

Here’s a quick Storify summary of yesterday’s last Open Development session “Taking it Local: 10 ways to make ‘open’ relevant in low resource or marginalized contexts,” It was moderated by Soren Gigler from the World Bank’s Innovation for Governance Team and included superb group of panelists:  David RodriguezMichael Gurstein, Huy Eng, Philip Thigo, and Barbara Birungi.

For the session, my colleagues David and Max Rodriguez from Plan El Salvador did some really great short videos around transparency, internet access, connectivity and related topics and how they are perceived and lived out in rural communities where they are working.

This first video with Marco Rodriguez (he’s also on Twitter), the Sub-Secretary of Transparency for the Government of El Salvador, is just a small example of some of the realities around “open” and accessibility, and the challenges of engaging every day people in some of the initiatives we are talking about here at OK Festival. (Not to mention it and the other videos with Marco and others have a number of fantastic metaphors and soundbites!)

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New technologies are opening up all kinds of possibilities for improving monitoring and evaluation. From on-going feedback and crowd-sourced input to more structured digital data collection, to access to large data sets and improved data visualization, the field is changing quickly.

On August 7, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Community Systems Foundation (CSF) joined up with the Technology Salon NYC for the first in a series of 3 Salons on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluating development outcomes. Our lead discussants were: Erica Kochi from UNICEF Innovations; Steven Davenport from Development Gateway and John Toner from CSF.

This particular Salon focused on the use of ICTs for social monitoring (a.k.a. ‘beneficiary feedback loops’) and accountability. Below is a summary of the key points that emerged at the Salon.

1) Monitoring and evaluation is changing

M&E is not only about formal data collection and indicators anymore, one discussant commented, “It’s free form, it contains sentiment.” New ICT tools can help donors and governments plan better. SMS and other social monitoring tools provide an additional element to more formal information sources and can help capture the pulse of the population. Combinations of official data sets with SMS data provide new ways of looking at cross-sections of information. Visualizations and trend analysis can offer combinations of information for decision making. Social monitoring, however, can be a scary thing for large institutions. It can seem too uncontrolled or potentially conflictive. One way to ease into it is through “bounded” crowd-sourcing (eg., working with a defined and more ‘trusted’ subset of the public) until there is comfort with these kinds of feedback mechanisms.

2) People need to be motivated to participate in social monitoring efforts

Building a platform or establishing an SMS response tool is not enough. One key to a successful social monitoring effort is working with existing networks, groups and organizations and doing well-planned and executed outreach, for example, in the newspaper, on the radio and on television. Social monitoring can and should go beyond producing information for a particular project or program. It should create an ongoing dialogue between and among people and institutions, expanding on traditional monitoring efforts and becoming a catalyst for organizations or government to better communicate and engage with the community. SMS feedback loops need to be thought of in terms of a dialogue or a series of questions rather than a one-question survey. “People get really engaged when they are involved in back and forth conversation.” Offering prizes or other kinds of external motivation can spike participation rates but also can create expectations that affect or skew programs in the long run. Sustainable approaches need to be identified early on. Rewards can also lead to false reports and re-registering, and need to be carefully managed.

3) Responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is critical

One way to help motivate individuals to participate in social monitoring is for governments or institutions to show that citizen/participant feedback elicits a response (eg., better delivery of public services).  “Incentives are good,” said one discussant, “But at the core, if you get interactive with users, you will start to see the responses. Then you’ll have a targeted group that you can turn to.” Responsiveness can be an issue, however if there is limited government or institutional interest, resourcing or capacity, so it’s important to work on both sides of the equation so that demand does not outstrip response capacity. Monitoring the responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is also important. “Was there a response promised? Did it happen? Has it been verified? What was the quality of it?”

4) Privacy and protection are always a concern

Salon participants brought up concerns about privacy and protection, especially for more sensitive issues that can put those who provide feedback at risk. There are a number of good practices in the IT world for keeping data itself private, for example presenting it in aggregate form, only releasing certain data, and setting up controls over who can access different levels of data. However with crowd-sourcing or incident mapping there can be serious concerns for those who report or provide feedback. Program managers need to have a very good handle on the potential risks involved or they can cause unintended harm to participants. Consulting with participants to better understand the context is a good idea.

5) Inclusion needs to be purposeful

Getting a representative response via SMS-based feedback or other social monitoring tools is not always easy. Mandatory ratios of male and female, age groups or other aspects can help ensure better representation. Different districts can be sampled in an effort to ensure overall response is representative. “If not,” commented one presenter, “you’ll just get data from urban males.” Barriers to participation also need consideration, such as language; however, working in multiple languages becomes very complicated very quickly. One participant noted that it is important to monitor whether people from different groups or geographic areas understand survey questions in the same way, and to be able to fine-tune the system as it goes along. A key concern is reaching and including the most vulnerable with these new technologies. “Donors want new technology as a default, but I cannot reach the most excluded with technology right now,” commented a participant.

6) Information should be useful to and used by the community

In addition to ensuring inclusion of individuals and groups, communities need to be involved in the entire process. “We need to be sure we are not just extracting information,” mentioned one participant. Organizations should be asking: What information does the community want? How can they get it themselves or from us? How can we help communities to collect the information they need on their own or provide them with local, sustainable support to do so?

7) Be sure to use the right tools for the job

Character limitation can be an issue with SMS. Decision tree models, where one question prompts another question that takes the user down a variety of paths, are one way around the character limit. SMS is not good for incredibly in-depth surveys however; it is good for breadth not depth. It’s important to use SMS and other digital tools for what they are good for. Paper can often be a better tool, and there is no shame in using it. Discussants emphasized that one shouldn’t underestimate the challenges in working with Telco operators and making short codes. Building the SMS network infrastructure takes months. Social media is on the rise, so how do you channel that into the M&E conversation?

8) Broader evaluative questions need to be established for these initiatives

The purpose of including ICT in different initiatives needs to be clear. Goals and evaluative questions need to be established. Teams need to work together because no one person is likely to have the programmatic, ICT and evaluation skills needed for a successfully implemented and well-documented project. Programs that include ICTs need better documentation and evaluation overall, including cost-benefit analyses and comparative analyses with other potential tools that could be used for these and similar processes.

9) Technology is not automatically cheaper and easier

These processes remain very iterative; they are not ‘automated’ processes. Initial surveys can only show patterns. What is more interesting is back-and-forth dialogue with participants. As one discussant noted, staff still spend a lot of time combing through data and responses to find patterns and nuances within the details. There is still a cost to these projects. In one instance, the major project budget went into a communication campaign that was launched and the work with existing physical networks to get people to participate. Compared to traditional ways of doing things (face-to-face, for example) the cost of outreach is not so expensive, but integrating SMS and other technologies does not automatically mean that money will be saved. The cost of SMS is also large in these kinds of projects because in order to ensure participation, representation, and inclusion, SMS usually needs to be free for participants. Even with bulk rates, if the program is at massive scale, it’s quite expensive. When assuming that governments or local organizations will take over these projects at some point, this is a real consideration.

10) Solutions at huge scale are not feasible for most organizations 

Some participants commented that the UN and the Red Cross and similarly sized organizations are the only ones who can work at the level of scale discussed at the Salon. Not many agencies have the weight to influence governments or mobile service providers, and these negotiations are difficult even for large-scale organizations. It’s important to look at solutions that react and respond to what development organizations and local NGOs can do. “And what about localized tools that can be used at district level or village level? For example, localized tools for participatory budgeting?” asked a participant. “There are ways to link high tech and SMS with low tech, radio outreach, working with journalists, working with other tools,” commented others. “We need to talk more about these ways of reaching everyone. We need to think more about the role of intermediaries in building capacity for beneficiaries and development partners to do this better.

11) New technology is not M&E magic

Even if you include new technology, successful initiatives require a team of people and need to be managed. There is no magic to doing translations or understanding the data – people are needed to put all this together, to understand it, to make it work. In addition, the tools covered at the Salon only collect one piece of the necessary information. “We have to be careful how we say things,” commented a discussant. We call it M&E, but it’s really ‘M’. We get confused with ourselves sometimes. What we are talking about today is monitoring results. Evaluation is how to take all that information then, and make an informed decision. It involves specialists and more information on top of this…” Another participant emphasized that SMS feedback can get at the symptoms but doesn’t seem to get at the root causes. Data needs to be triangulated and efforts made to address root causes and end users need to be involved.

12) Donors need to support adaptive design

Participants emphasized that those developing these programs, tools and systems need to be given space to try and to iterate, to use a process of adaptive design. Donors shouldn’t lock implementers into unsuitable design processes. A focused ‘ICT and Evaluation Fail Faire’ was suggested as a space for improving sharing and learning around ICTs and M&E. There is also learning to be shared from people involved in ICT projects that have scaled up. “We need to know what evidence is needed to scale up. There is excitement and investment, but not enough evidence,” it was concluded.

Our next Salon

Our next Salon in the series will take place on August 30th. It will focus on the role of intermediaries in building capacity for communities and development partners to use new technologies for monitoring and evaluation. We’ll be looking to discover good practices for advancing the use of ICTs in M&E in sustainable ways. Sign up for the Technology Salon mailing list here. [Update: A summary of the August 30 Salon is here.]

Salons run by Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. 

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I spent last week at the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC), put on by Data.gov, the World Bank Open Data Initiative and the Open Development Technology Alliance. For a full overview, watch some of the presentations and read the liveblog.

A point made by several presenters and panelists is that the field has advanced quite a bit in terms of getting data open, and that what really matters now is what people are doing with the data to improve and/or change things.

One of the keynoters, David Eaves, for example, commentedthe conferences we organize have got to talk less and less about how to get data open and have to start talking more about how do we use data to drive public policy objectives. I’m hoping the next International Open Government Data Conference will have an increasing number of presentations by citizens, non-profits and other outsiders [who] are using open data to drive their agenda, and how public servants are using open data strategically to drive to a[n] outcome.” 

There were some great anecdotal examples throughout the conference of how open data are having impact, especially in 4 key areas:

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

There was also quite a bit of recognition that we need more evidence to back up the anecdotal success stories told around open data, and that it’s difficult to trace all the impact that open data are having because of the multiple and unintended impacts.

On the other hand, the question was raised: “is open data part of the public’s right to information? Because if we conceive of open data as a right, the framework and conceptualization change as do, perhaps, the measures of success.

Several panelists mentioned some of the big challenges around engaging citizens to use open data for social change, especially in areas with less resources and low access to the Internet.

If one of the key next steps is engaging citizens in using open data, we all need to think more about how to overcome barriers like language, literacy, who owns and accesses devices, low education levels, low capacity to interpret data, information literacy, power and culture, apathy, lack of incentive and motivation for citizen engagement, and poor capacity of duty bearers/governments to respond to citizen demand. (For more on some of these common challenges and approaches to addressing them, see 15 thoughts on good governance programming with youth.)

On the last day of IOGDC we had the opportunity to suggest our own topics during Open Space. I suggested the topic “Taking Open Data Offline” because it seems that often when we imagine all the fantastic possibilities of open data, we forget how many people live in remote, rural areas (or urban areas with poor infrastructure) where there is no broadband and where many of the above-mentioned barriers are very high. (See a Storified summary of our conversation here: #IOGDCoffline.)

The solutions most often mentioned for getting data into the hands of ordinary citizens are Internet and mobile apps. Sometimes when I’m around open data folks, I do a double take because the common understanding of ‘infomediary’ is ‘the developer making the mobile app’. This seems to ignore that, as Jim Hendler noted during the IOGDC pre-conference, some 75% of the world’s population is still offline.

We need to expand the notion of ‘infomediary’ in these discussions to think about the range of people, media, organizations and institutions who can help close the gap between big data and the average person, both in terms of getting open data out to the public in digestible ways and in terms of connecting local knowledge, information needs, feedback and opinions of citizens back to big data. There will need to be a wide range of infomediaries using a number of different communication tools and channels in order to really make open data accessible and useful.

Though things are changing, the majority of folks in the world don’t yet have smart phones. In a sense, the ‘most marginalized’ could be defined as ‘those who don’t have mobile phones.’ And even people who do have phones may not choose to spend their scarce resources to access open data. Data that is available online may be in English or one of only a few major languages. Most people in most of the world don’t purchase data packages, they buy pre-paid air time. The majority don’t have a constant connection to the cloud but rather rely on intermittent Internet access, if at all.

In addition, in areas where education levels are low or data interpretation skills are not strong, people may not have the skills to make use of open data found online. So other communications tools, channels and methods need to be considered for making open data accessible to the broader public via different kinds of intermediaries and infomediaries, multi-direction information sharing channels, feedback loops and combinations of online/offline communication. People may even need support formulating the questions they want answered by open data, considering that open data can be a very abstract concept for those who are not familiar with the Internet and the use of data for critical analysis.

Some great ideas on how to use SMS in open data and open government and accountability work exist, such as Huduma, UReport, I Paid A Bribe, and more. Others are doing really smart thinking about how to transform open data into engaging media for a general audience through beautiful graphics that allow for deep analysis and comparison and that tell compelling stories that allow for a personal connection.

We need to think more, however, about how we can adapt these ideas to offline settings, how to learn from approaches and methods that have been around since the pre-Internet days, and how to successfully blend online-offline tools and contexts for a more inclusive reach and, one hopes, a wider and broader impact.

‘Popular Education’ and ‘Communication for Development (C4D)’ are two fields the open data movement could learn from in terms of including more remote or ‘marginalized’ populations in local, national and global conversations that may be generated through opening up data.

I remember being on a 10-hour ride to Accra one time from the Upper West Region of Ghana. The driver was listening to talk radio in a local language. At one point, someone was reading out a list. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but I could tell the list contained names of communities and districts. The list-reading went on for quite a long time. At one point, the driver cheered and pumped his fist. I asked what he was happy about and he explained that they were reading the list of where the government would be constructing schools and assigning teachers in the next year. His community was going to get a secondary school, and his children would not have to travel far now to continue their education. Radio is still one of the best tools for sharing information. Radio can be combined with activities like ‘Listening Clubs’ where groups gather to listen and discuss. 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.

I lived in El Salvador for the 1990s. Long and complicated Peace Accords were signed in 1992 after 12 years of civil war. A huge effort was made to ‘popularize’ the contents of the Peace Accords so that the whole country would know what the agreements were and so that people could hold the different entities accountable for implementing them. The contents of the Peace Accords were shared via comics, radio, public service announcements, and a number of other media that were adapted to different audiences. Local NGOs worked hard to educate the affected populations on the rights they could legally claim stemming from the Accords and to provide support in doing so.

When the Civil War ended in Guatemala a few years later, the same thing happened. Guatemala, however had the additional complication of 22 indigenous languages. Grassroots ‘popular education’ approaches in multiple languages were used by various groups across the country in an effort to ensure that no one was left out, to help develop ‘critical conscience’ and critical thinking around the implementation of the Peace Accords, and to involve the public in the work around the Truth Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights violations during the war and opened them to the public as part of the reconciliation process. Latin America (thanks to Paolo Freire and others) has a long history of  ‘popular education’ approaches and methods that can be tapped into and linked with open data. Open data can be every bit as complicated as the legalistic contents of the Peace Accords and it is likely that data that is eventually opened will link with issues (lack of political participation, land ownership patterns, corruption, political favoritism, poor accountability and widespread marginalization) that were the cause of conflict in past decades.

The Mural of the People / O Mural do Povo from Verdade in Mozambique. “The marvelous Mozambican public will attribute each year the ‘Made in Frelimo Oscar of Incompetence’…  The 2012 candidates are…”

In Mozambique, 75% of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. Newspapers costing between 45 and 75 cents are considered a luxury. The 20,000 issues of the free and widely circulated Verdade Newspaper, which comes out once a week, reach an estimated 400,000 people in Maputo and a few other cities as they are read and passed around to be re-read. Verdade reaches an additional audience via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and a ‘Mural of the People’ where the public can participate and contribute their thoughts and opinions old-school style — on a public chalkboard. The above February 7, 2012, mural, for example, encouraged the population to vote in the ‘Incompetence Oscars – Made in Frelimo [the current government party]’. Candidates for an Incompetence Oscar included the “Minister of Unfinished Public Works.” (More about Verdade here.) This combination of online and offline tools helps spread news and generate opinion and conversation on government performance and accountability.

Social accountability tools like community scorecards, participatory budget advocacysocial auditsparticipatory videoparticipatory theater and community mapping have all been used successfully in accountability and governance work and would be more appropriate tools in some cases than Internet and mobile apps to generate citizen engagement around open data. Combining new ICTs together 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, ‘popular education’ approach to open data could really 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.

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