* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Blair Glencorse highlights some of the best ideas and tools for improving governance through technology that he learned about following a meeting of social activists, change-makers, donors, thinkers and ICT-experts in Mumbai
In mid-January, the Lab was lucky enough to be in Mumbai for a conference hosted by various programs at Stanford University and the University of Mumbai. The discussions brought together over 100 social activists, change-makers, donors, thinkers and ICT-experts for two days of discussions about the ideas and tools that can improve governance through the use of technology. We learned a huge amount about how to creatively engage citizens in accountability and democracy- here are our top five takeaways (combined with some great accountability innovations we love!):
i) Understand Context. In rural India, communities largely do not have access to the internet and may not be SMS-savvy- but most have mobile phones. The combating corruption with mobile phones project is partnering with local organizations in Bihar to use appropriate mobile-phone based tools to engage with and generate feedback from beneficiaries of welfare programs- with over 60% of calls being picked up and listened to in the first deployment. Likewise, CGNet Swara is overcoming technological constraints through an interactive voice forum which enables callers to record messages of local interest and to listen to the messages others have recorded (over 275,000 to date). Messages are also posted on the internet to be viewed by journalists, activists and policymakers and are used as a means to push for the solutions to problems.
ii) Bridge the Digital Divide. Tech tools have to be part of a larger, holistic strategy to generate transparency and build accountability. Galli Galli have developed a tool to crowdsource information on public services in Nepal. Data is deployed through an online wiki, but information is gathered, and problems are solved off-line through “wiki-a-thons” and coordination with relevant government agencies in charge of the issues. The site has been accessed almost 200,000 times in less than a year. The Bhoomi system for the management of land records in Karnataka is also online (now with over 20 million land records for 6.7 million farmers) but farmers can use over 177 touch screen kiosks at local government offices to obtain printed land records without internet access.
iii) Close the Loop. Many ICT-based tools are used in important ways to engage populations and raise awareness but measurement of impact- and the ability to “close the loop”- can be absent. OneWorld is showing how to demonstrate success through the development of a web and GPS system to gather information on rural toilet infrastructure in India. The system collects and transmits credible data in real time to a central platform, upon which state officials can then act. In a different way, the Informed Voter Project is closing the loop through tracking the promises versus performance of elected officials in India and then helping citizens engage with these representatives to solve their problems.
iv) Think about Sustainability. Many tech tools lose users over time- growing and sustaining a user-base can be difficult. Awaaz.De is showing how to build a community of users over time through developing open source products that allows individuals and groups to communicate by voice messages delivered through phone calls. Awaaz.De has now reached over 200,000 people in India, and is growing every day. Financial sustainability can also be an issue for organizations working on accountability- but NextDrop is showing how a social enterprise can work in this space. The team uses technology to improve access to and quality of essential services such as water. They have developed a valve monitoring product that tracks water flow; trains valvemen on mobile literacy; and organizes citizens to provide feedback on quality- paid for by the utilities themselves.
v) Ensure Political Feasibility. Technical and technological solutions are necessary to help solve governance challenges in the developing world, but are certainly not sufficient. These efforts have to be underpinned by and positioned within a deep appreciation of the political-economy conditions in which they exist. The Swaniti Initiative is looking at this through combining efforts to understand the political realm with programs to build a community of change-makers and deploy data mapping tools in relevant ways. This is allowing the organization to navigate the politics of transparency and accountability and push for real change with the information it gathers.
There is a huge amount of creativity happening in the technology and governance space in South Asia- which is underpinning larger movements in the ways in which citizens are interacting with decision-makers and power-holders. There are challenges to this shift in relationships and thinking- as outlined above- but some really encouraging progress is being made.