Connection is shaky when cellphones used to monitor government

Thursday, 6 February 2014 15:48 GMT

Mobile phones sit in a roadside repair kiosk that charges phones using a solar panel near the village of Kassela, 50 kms east of the Malian capital Bamako, June 19, 2012. Picture taken June 19, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

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Using cellphones, a charity has worked out how to enable governments and scattered rural populations to communicate more closely than ever before on policies and projects

(Refiled to clarify role of cellphones in monitoring service delivery by adding new first sentence in paragraph 3; and clarify that electricity problems affected only one district) 

When Engineers Without Borders noticed that government officials in rural Ghana had no idea how many students were in a school or whether water wells were working, the charity thought mobile phones could solve the problem. The idea was that local residents would record voice messages outlining their complaints for the government in response to an automated phone survey. But things didn’t work out as planned.  

 “The challenge is that, for lots of these districts, they’re responsible to citizens that live in small villages separated by crappy, rural roads,” said Mark Boots, co-founder and executive director of VOTO Mobile, a social enterprise that EWB established in 2012. “The only way to figure this out is to actually hop in a truck and drive all over the district and map this out. And that takes a lot of resources and a lot of time.”

Cellphone technology offers a new way to monitor delivery of public services.  When VOTO launched pilot projects with mobile phones in two Ghanaian districts in mid-2013, it found it difficult to gather information because of poor connections and in one district people with little access to electricity often left their phones off. Some district governments lacked the resources to respond effectively to gaps in services even if feedback had been gathered.

VOTO is not alone in facing such challenges. With more than 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions now active worldwide, a range of organizations, including the World Bank, have ambitious plans to use mobile phones to encourage more communication between governments and their citizens. These groups aim to make governments in developing countries more accountable, but they have met an unexpected barrier on the ground: the human element.

Mobile “citizen engagement” initiatives are plagued by the question of who answers calls or replies to text messages. It’s hard to know if data is accurate or representative of a population. The poorest members of a community may not have access to a phone, while those who do may not respond for reasons that include illiteracy and a lack of technological know-how. The World Bank has found that many projects have low participation rates.  

Even so, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim announced last year that all World Bank projects will eventually include a mechanism for getting feedback from the people they’re trying to help. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are likely to play a significant role.   

“There’s a big push, a drive, within the World Bank right now for that kind of work, for ICT-enabled citizen engagement,” said Joseph Mansilla, a consultant on open government at the World Bank.

To be sure, there are some success stories.

In 2011, the government of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, used a ‘digital cabinet’ to elicit the views of local residents on how to spend its healthcare budget.  After locals made 1,338 proposals for improving healthcare, 50 were selected by 60,000 people who voted using the internet and mobile phones.   

“Those contributions shifted the health policy,” said Jennifer Shkabatur, a social development specialist at the World Bank and a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Israel. “More money went into maternal health, clinics, additional hospitals. Two additional hospitals were constructed.”

But what happened offline was crucial to ensuring the outcome represented the views of a broad group of people. Since many people were unlikely to participate through technology alone, an NGO organized volunteers who went to different villages on a bus equipped with computers and an internet connection to get the residents involved, Shkabatur said. 

In fact, human interaction is often the key to success. Even one face-to-face meeting telling people how to get involved can make a difference.

 Check My School, a project in the Philippines that was supported by the World Bank and launched in 2011, enabled Filipinos to tell the government of their concerns about public schools – such as one where 5,000 students were sharing  two toilets – through the internet, text messages and social media, and ask for a response. But internet penetration in the Philippines was only about 30 percent when the project began.  More important than technology was a “robust network of volunteers” that played a central role in data collection and helped  several communities get involved offline, Shkabatur said.

In addition, projects not backed by local resources don’t last long.

South Kivu, a province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, began “participatory budgeting,” a process in which residents share their opinions and vote on their local government’s spending plan, in 2011. Working closely with the World Bank, it used cellphones to tell residents about public meetings, to give them a chance to vote if they couldn’t attend and to update people about how money was spent. Although the government has continued participatory budgeting, which improved ties with locals, it stopped using mobile phones after the World Bank stepped back.  

It’s costly and the government doesn’t have in-house expertise to carry it out, said Sabiti Kalendula, the World Bank’s coordinator for the initiative.

Another drawback is that data obtained through mobile phones can be “shallow,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity, an organization that uses technology to monitor corruption.

Organizations have worked around this problem by training volunteers to collect more sophisticated data and by using numeric codes to pack more information into each message, said Trevor Knoblich, a project director at Frontline SMS, a text messaging software that has been used for a range of development projects.

Optimists insist these shortcomings are outweighed by the potential of mobile phones to improve governance.

“The technology itself is about as democratic as it gets,” Knoblich said. He notes that more people have access to mobile phones than any other communications technology and it’s usually the cheapest.  

VOTO has coped with illiteracy by reaching poorly educated people with voice surveys rather than text messages, Boots said.

It’s also using what it learned from its pilots in Ghana to launch a new project to gather residents’ feedback on rural service delivery for local governments that have set aside resources to respond. This time, instead of hoping people will pick up, VOTO is organizing meetings to tell people about the process and register a representative group of residents to give feedback, Boots said. It’s also giving them a phone number they can call to participate in case they miss VOTO’s call.

In some places, cellphones have already changed how people interact with the government.

When the Liberian government committed to fulfilling 84 election promises within 150 days in 2012, mobile phones played a major role in holding it to account. Despite unreliable roads and limited internet connections, journalists across the country used text messages to communicate with a team in the capital that compiled data on how well the government was doing, said Rachel Pulfur, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.

The government had acted on only 19 percent of the promises by the 100-day mark. But, in the face of critical media coverage, it took action on two-thirds of the platform by the end of the 150-day period,

Without mobile phones, “it would have been impossible to do over that time period,” Pulfer said. 

(Alia Dharssi is a fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto)) 

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