Author Archives: Tim

Data, information, knowledge and power – exploring Open Knowledge’s new core purpose

[Summary: a contribution to debate about the development of open knowledge movements]

New 'Open Knowledge' data-earth logo.

New ‘Open Knowledge Foundation’ name and ‘data earth’ branding.

The Open Knowledge Foundation (re-named as as ‘Open Knowledge’) are soft-launching a new brand over the coming months.

Alongside the new logo, and details of how the new brand was developed, posted on the OK Wiki, appear a set of statements about the motivations, core purpose and tag-line of the organisation. In this post I want to offer an initial critical reading of this particular process and, more importantly, text.

Preliminary notes

Before going further, I want to offer a number of background points that frame the spirit in which the critique is offered.

  1. I have nothing but respect for the work of the leaders, staff team, volunteers and wider community of the Open Knowledge Foundation – and have been greatly inspired by the dedication I’ve seen to changing defaults and practices around how we handle data, information and knowledge. There are so many great projects, and so much political progress on openness, which OKFN as a whole can rightly take credit for.
  2. I recognise that there are massive challenges involved in founding, running and scaling up organisations. These challenges are magnified many times in community based and open organisations.
  3. Organisations with a commitment to openness, or democracy, whether the co-operative movement, open source communities like Mozilla, communities such as Creative Commons and indeed, the Open Knowledge Foundation – are generally held to much higher standards and face much more complex pressures from engaging their communities in what they do – than do closed and conventional organisations. And, as the other examples show, the path is not always an easy one. There are inevitably growing pains and challenges.
  4. It is generally better to raise concerns and critiques and talk about them, than leave things unsaid. A critique is about getting into the details. Details matter.
  5. See (1).

(Disclosure: I have previously worked as a voluntary coordinator for the open-development working group of OKF (with support from AidInfo), and have participated in many community activities. I have never carried out paid work for OKF, and have no current formal affiliation.)

The text

Here’s the three statements in the OK Branding notes that caught my attention and sparked some reflections:

About our brand and what motivates us:
A revolution in technology is happening and it’s changing everything we do. Never before has so much data been collected and analysed. Never before have so many people had the ability to freely, easily and quickly share information across the globe. Governments and corporations are using this data to create knowledge about our world, and make decisions about our future. But who should control this data and the ability to find insights and make decisions? The many, or the few? This is a choice that we get to make. The future is up for grabs. Do we want to live in a world where access to knowledge is “closed”, and the power and understanding it brings is controlled by the few? Or, do we choose a world where knowledge is “open” and we are all empowered to make informed choices about our future? We believe that knowledge should be open, and that everyone – from citizens to scientists, from enterprises to entrepreneurs, – should have access to the information they need to understand and shape the world around them.

Our core purpose:

  • A world where knowledge creates power for the many, not the few.
  • A world where data frees us – to make informed choices about how we live, what we buy and who gets our vote.
  • A world where information and insights are accessible – and apparent – to everyone.
  • This is the world we choose.

Our tagline:
See how data can change the world

The critique

My concerns are not about the new logo or name. I understand (all too well) the way that having ‘Foundation’ in a non-profits name can mean different things in different contexts (not least people expecting you to have an endowment and funds to distribute), and so the move to Open Knowledge as a name has a good rationale. Rather, I wanted to raise four concerns:

(1) Process and representativeness

Tag Cloud from Open Knowledge Foundation Survey. See http://blog.okfn.org/2014/02/12/who-are-you-community-survey-results-part-1/ for details.

Tag Cloud from Open Knowledge Foundation Survey. See blog post for details.

The message introducing the new brand to OKF-Discuss notes that “The network has been involved in the brand development process especially in the early stages as we explored what open knowledge meant to us all” referring primarily to the Community Survey run at the end of 2013 and written up here and here. However, the later parts of developing the brand appear to have been outsourced to a commercial brand consultancy consulting with a limited set of staff and stakeholders, and what is now presented appears to be being offered as given, rather than for consultation. The result has been a narrow focus on the ‘data’ aspects of OKF.

Looking back over the feedback from the 2013 survey, that data-centricity fails to represent the breadth of interests in the OKF community (particularly when looking beyond the quantitative survey questions which had an in-built bias towards data in the original survey design). Qualitative responses to the Survey talk of addressing specific global challenges, holding governments accountable, seeking diversity, and going beyond open data to develop broader critiques around intellectual property regimes. Yet none of this surfaces in the motivation statement, or visibly in the core purpose.

OKF has not yet grappled in full with idea of internal democracy and governance – yet as a network made up of many working groups, local chapters and more, for a ‘core purpose’ statement to emerge without wider consultation seem problematic. There is a big missed opportunity here for deeper discussion about ideas and ideals, and for the conceptualisation of a much richer vision of open knowledge. The result is, I think, a core purpose statement that fails to represent the diversity of the community OKF has been able to bring together, and that may threaten it’s ability to bring together those communities in shared space in future.

Process points aside however (see growing pains point above), there are three more substantive issues to be raised.

(2) Data and tech-centricity

A selection of OKF Working Groups

The Open Knowledge movement I’ve met at OKFestival and other events, and that is evident through the pages of the working groups is one committed to many forms of openness – education, hardware, sustainability, economics, political processes and development amongst others. It is a community that has been discussing diversity and building a global movement. Data may be an element of varying importance across the working groups and interest areas of OKF. And technology may be an enabler of action for each. But a lot are not fundamentally about data, or even technology, as their core focus. As we found when we explored how different members of the Open Development working group understood the concept of open development in 2012, many members focussed more upon open processes than on data and tech. Yet, for all this diversity of focus – the new OK tagline emphasises data alone.

I work on issues of open data everyday. I think it’s an important area. But it’s not the only element of open knowledge that should matter in the broad movement.

Whilst the Open Knowledge Foundation has rarely articulated the kinds of broad political critique of intellectual property regimes that might be found in prior Access to Knowledge movements, developing a concrete motivation and purpose statement gave the OKF chance to deepen it’s vision rather than narrow it. The risk Jo Bates has written about, of intellectual of the ‘open’ movement being co-opted into dominant narratives of neoliberalism, appears to be a very real one. In the motivation statement above, government and big corporates are cast as the problem, and technology and data in the hands of ‘citizens’, ‘scientists’, ‘entrepreneurs’ and (perhaps contradictorily) ‘enterprises’, as the solution. Alternative approaches to improving processes of government and governance through opening more spaces for participation is off the table here, as are any specific normative goals for opening knowledge. Data-centricity displaces all of these.

Now – it might be argued that although the motivation statement takes data as a starting point – is is really at its core about the balance of power: asking who should control data, information and knowledge. Yet – the analysis appears to entirely conflate the terms ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ – which clouds this substantially.

(3) Data, Information and Knowledge

Data, Information, Knowledge ,Wisdom

The DIKW pyramid offers a useful way of thinking about the relationship between Data, Information, Knowledge (and Wisdom). This has sometimes been described as a hierarchy from ‘know nothing’ (data is symbols and signs encoding things about the world, but useless without interpretation), ‘know what’, ‘know how’ and ‘know why’.

Data is not the same as information, nor the same as knowledge. Converting data into information requires the addition of context. Converting information into knowledge requires skill and experience, obtained through practice and dialogue.

Data and information can be treated as artefacts/thigns. I can e-mail you some data or some information. But knowledge involves a process – sharing it involves more than just sending a file.

OKF has historically worked very much on the transition from data to information, and information to knowledge, through providing training, tools and capacity building, yet this is not captured at all in the core purpose. Knowledge, not data, has the potential to free, bringing greater autonomy. And it is arguably proprietary control of data and information that is at the basis of the power of the few, not any superior access to knowledge that they possess. And if we recognise that turning data into information and into knowledge involves contextualisation and subjectivity, then ‘information and insights’ cannot be by simultaneously ‘apparent’ to everyone, if this is taken to represent some consensus on ‘truths’, rather than recognising that insights are generated, and contested, through processes of dialogue.

It feels like there is a strong implicit positivism within the current core purpose: which stands to raise particular problems for broadening the diversity of Open Knowledge beyond a few countries and communities.

(4) Power, individualism and collective action

I’ve already touched upon issues of power. Addressing “global challenges like justice, climate changes, cultural matters” (from survey responses) will not come from empowering individuals alone – but will have to involve new forms of co-ordination and collective action. Yet power in the ‘core purpose’ statement appears to be primarily conceptualised in terms of individual “informed choices about how we live, what we buy and who gets our vote”, suggesting change is purely the result of aggregating ‘choice’, yet failing to explore how knowledge needs to be used to also challenge the frameworks in which choices are presented to us.

The ideas that ‘everyone’ can be empowered, and that when “knowledge is ‘open’ [...] we are all empowered to make informed choices about our future” fails to take account of the wider constraints to action and choice that many around the world face, and that some of the global struggles that motivate many to pursue greater openness are not always win-win situations. Those other constraints and wider contexts might not be directly within the power of an open knowledge movement to address, or the core preserve of open knowledge, but they need to be recognised and taken into account in the theories of change developed.

In summary

I’ve tried to deal with the Motivation, Core Purpose and Tag-line statements with as carefully as limited free time allows – but inevitably there is much more to dig into – and there will be other ways of reading these statements. More optimistic readings are possible – and I certainly hope might turn out to be more realistic – but in the interest of dialogue I hope that a critical reading is a more useful contribution to the debate, and I would re-iterate my preliminary notes 1 – 5 above.

To recap the critique:

  • Developing a brand and statement of core purpose is an opportunity for dialogue and discussion, yet right now this opportunity appears to have be mostly missed;
  • The motivation, core purpose and tagline are more tech-centric and data-centric than the OKF community, risking sidelining other aspects of the open knowledge community;
  • There need to be a recognition of the distinction of data, information and knowledge, to develop a coherent theory of change and purpose;
  • There appears to be an implicit libertarian individualism in current theories of change, and it is not clear that this is compatible with working to address the shared global challenges that have brought many people into the open knowledge community.

Updates:

There is some discussion of these issues taking place on the OKFN-Discuss list, and the Wiki page has been updated from that I was initially writing about, to re-frame what was termed ‘core purpose’ as ‘brand core purpose’.

Five critical questions for constructing data standards

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about processes of standardisation recently (building on the recent IATI Technical Advisory Group meeting, working on two new standards projects, and conversations at today’s MIT Center for Civic Media & Berkman Center meet-up). One of the key strands in that thinking is around how pragmatics and ethics of standards collide. Building a good standard involves practical choices based on the data that is available, the technologies that might use that data and what they expect, and the feasibility of encouraging parties who might communicate using that standard to adapt their practices (more or less minimally) in order to adopt it. But a standard also has ethical and political consequences, whether it is a standard deep in the Internet stack (as John Morris and Alan Davidson discuss in this paper from 2003[1]), or a standard at the content level, supporting exchange of information in some specific domain.

The five questions below seek to (in a very provisional sense) capture some of the considerations that might go into an exploration of the ethical dimensions of standard construction[2].

(Thanks to Rodrigo DaviesCatherine D’Ignazio and Willow Brugh for the conversations leading to this post)

For any standard, ask:

Who can use it?

Practically I mean. Who, if data in this standard format was placed in front of them, would be able to do something meaningful with it. Who might want to use it? Are people who could benefit from this data excluded from using it by it’s complexity?

Many data standards assume that ‘end users’ will access the data through intermediaries (i.e. a non-technical user can only do anything with the data after it has been processed by some intermediary individual or tool) – but not everyone has access to intermediaries, or intermediaries may have their own agendas or understandings of the world that don’t fit with those of the data user.

I’ve recently been exploring whether it’s possible to turn this assumption around, and make simple versions of a data standard the default, with more expressive data models available to those with the skills to transform data into these more structured forms. For example, the Three Sixty Giving standard (warning: very draft/provisional technical docs) is based around the idea of a rich data model, but a simple flat-as-possible serialisation that means most of the common forms of analysis someone might want to do with the data can be done in a spreadsheet, and for 90%+ of cases, data can be exchanged in flat(ish) forms, with richer structures only used where needed.

What can be expressed?

Standards make choices about what can be expressed usually at two levels:

  • Field choice
  • Taxonomies / codelists

Both involve making choices about how the world is sliced up, and what sorts of things can be represented and expressed.

A thought experiment: If I asked people in different social situations an open question inviting them to tell me about the things a standard is intended to be about (e.g. “Tell me about this contract?”) how much of what they report can be captured in the standard? Is it better at capturing the information seen as important to people in certain social positions? Are there ways it could capture information from those in other positions?

What social processes might it replace or disrupt?

Over the short-term, many data standards end up being fed by existing information systems – with data exported and transformed into the standard. However, over time, standards can lead to systems being re-engineered around them. And in shifting the flow of information inside and outside of organisations, standards processes can disrupt and shift patterns of autonomy and power.

Sometimes the ‘inefficient’ processes of information exchange, which open data standards seek to rationalise, can be full of all sorts of tacit information exchange, relationship building etc. which the introduction of a standard could affect. Thinking about how the technical choices in a standard affect it’s adoption, and how far they allow for distributed patterns of data generation and management may be important. (For example, which identifiers in a standard have to be maintained centrally, thus placing a pressure for centralised information systems to maintain the integrity of data – and which can be managed locally – making it easier to create more distributed architectures. It’s not simply a case of what kinds of architectures a standard does or doesn’t allow, but which it makes easier or trickier, as in budget constrained environments implementations will often go down the path of least resistance, even if it’s theoretically possible to build out implementation of standard-using tools in ways that better respect the exiting structures of an organisation.)

Which fields are descriptive? Which fields are normative?

There has recently been discussion of the introduction on Facebook of a wide range of options for describing Gender, with Jane Fae arguing in the Guardian that, rather than provide a restricted list of fields, the field should simply be dropped altogether. Fae’s argument is about the way in which gender categories are used to target ads, and that it has little value as a category otherwise.

Is it possible to look at a data standard and consider which proposed fields import strong normative worldviews with them? And then to consider omitting these fields?

It may be that for some fields, silence is the better option that forcing people, organisations or events (or whatever it is that the standard describes) into boxes that don’t make sense for all the individuals/cases covered…

Does it permit dissent?

Catherine D’Ignazio suggested this question. How far does a standard allow itself to be disputed? What consequences are there to breaking the rules of a standard or remixing it to express ideas not envisaged by the original architects? What forms of tussle can the standard accommodate?

This is perhaps even more a question of the ecosystem of tools, validators and other resources around the standard than a standard specification itself, but these are interelated.

Footnotes

[1]: I’ve been looking for more recent work on ‘public interest’ and politics of standard creation. Academically I spend a lot of time going back to Bowker and Star’s work on ‘infrastructure’, but I’m on the look out for other works I should be drawing upon in thinking about this.

[2]: I’m talking particularly about open data standards, and standards at the content level, like IATI, Open 311, GTFS etc.

How can we make Internet Governance processes more legible?

[Summary: Links and reflections on the need for an improved information and engagement architecture for Internet Governance]

At a Berkman lunchtime talk today, Veni Markovski, ICANN vice-president for Russia, discussed high-level conferences on ICT and the Internet’ and what they mean for the Internet as we know it. The two diagrams below which Veni had on screen during his talk capture the increasing complexity of the Internet Governance process, with a mix of open and closed meetings of overlapping participants and stakeholders.

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You can find Nate Mathias’s live-blog of the talk here, including reporting from the Q&A where Ethan Zuckerman put the question, with the importance of upcoming decisions: What should people who care about the Internet do? And, what should foundations be doing in this space too? Vini’s response was a call for interested parties to get involved in Internet Governance, following mailing lists and taking the advantage of remote participation in upcoming meetings.

Yet – with the complexity visible above, doing that is no small task. Keeping up with Internet Governance mailing lists could easily be a full-time job: and meeting information, participation opportunities and meeting records are scattered across the web. The ‘information architecture’ of Internet Governance is far from intelligible to outsiders trying to work out which issues matter to them, where they should get involved, and what the history of an issue is. It seems not a little ironic given the potential of the web to link up and make information more navigable, and to support global engagement and interaction, that Internet Governance processes and their online presences (and particularly those launched recently) feel very old fashioned. Whilst the early multi-stakeholderism of many Internet Governance fora was innovative, it feels very much like that innovation is on the wane as governments increasingly shape the agenda, and civil society capacity is spread ever more thinly.

So: what process and technical innovations should the Internet Governance field be engaging with to make it possible for more people to be involved in?

The recently launched Friends of the IGF project is trying to address some of the problems that exist when it comes to the Internet Governance Forum, bringing together and curating transcripts from past fora, and trying to tag content and speakers, proving new entry points into the governance debates. Tomorrow we’ll be having a skill-share workshop at the Berkman Center with Susan Chalmers who heads up the project, exploring how an open and user-centred design process might help focus that project on meeting key needs of IGF followers. But it feels like we also need a much broader conversation, and work on design, to join the dots between different Internet Governance silos for those approaching from outside, and to really work on institutionalisation of improved and open working practices.

ODDC Update at Developers for Development, Montreal

[Summary: Cross posted from the Open Data Research Network website. Notes from a talk at OD4DC Montreal] 

I’m in Montreal this week for the Developers for Development hackathon and conference. Asides from having fun building a few things as part of our first explorations for the Open Contracting Data Standard, I was also on a panel with the fantastic Linda Raftree, Laurent Elder and Anahi Ayala Iacucci focussing on the topic of open data impacts in developing country: a topic I spend a lot of time working on. We’re still in the research phase of the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries research network, but I tried to pull together a talk that would capture some of the themes that have been coming up in our network meetings so far. So – herewith the slides and raw notes from that talk.

Introduction

In this short presentation I want to focus on three things. Firstly, I want to present a global snapshot of open data readiness, implementation and impacts around the world.

Secondly, I want to offer some remarks on the importance of how research into open data is framed, and what social research can bring to our understanding of the open data landscape in developing countries.

Lastly, I want to share a number of critical reflections emerging from the work of the ODDC network.

Part 1: A global snapshot

I’ve often started presentations and papers about open data by commenting on how ‘it’s just a few short years since the idea of open data gained traction’, yet, in 2014 that line is starting to get a little old. Data.gov launched in 2009, Kenya’s data portal in 2011. IATI has been with us for a while. Open data is no longer a brand new idea, just waiting to be embraced – it is becoming part of the mainstream discourse of development and government policy. The issue now is less about convincing governments to engage with the open data agenda, than it is about discovering whether open data discourses are translating into effective implementation, and ultimately open data impacts.

Back in June last year, at the Web Foundation we launched a global expert survey to help address that question. All-in-all we collected data covering 77 countries, representing every region, type of government and level of development, and asking about government, civil society and business readiness to secure benefits from open data, the actual availability of key datasets, and observed impacts from open data. The results were striking: over 55% of these diverse countries surveyed had some form of open data policy in place, many with high-level ministerial support.

The policy picture looks good. Yet, when it came to key datasets actually being made available as open data, the picture was very different. Less than 7% of the dataset surveyed in the Barometer were published both in bulk machine-readable forms, and under open licenses: that is, in ways that would meet the open definition. And much of this percentage is made up of the datasets published by a few leading developed states. When it comes to essential infrastructural datasets like national maps, company registers or land registries, data availability, of even non-open data, is very poor, and particularly bad in developing countries. In many countries, the kinds of cadastral records that are cited as a key to the economic potential of open data are simple not yet collected with full country coverage. Many countries have long-standing capacity building programs to help them create land registries or detailed national maps – but with many such programmes years or even decades behind on delivering the required datasets.

The one exception where data was generally available and well curated, albeit not provided in open and accessible forms, was census data. National statistics offices have been the beneficiaries of years of capacity building support: yet the same programmes that have enabled them to manage data well have also helped them to become quasi-independent of governments, complicating whether or not they will easily be covered by government open data policies.

If the implementation story is disappointing, the impact story is even more so. In the Barometer survey we asked expert researchers to cite examples of where open data was reported in the media, or in academic sources, to have had impacts across a range of political, social and economic domains, and to score questions on a 10-point scale for the breadth and depth of impacts identified. The scores were universally low. Of course, whilst the idea of open data can no longer be claimed to be brand new, many country open data initiatives are – and so it is far to day that outcomes and impacts take time – and are unlikely to be seen over in any substantial way over the very short term. Yet, even in countries where open data has been present for a number of years, evidence of impact was light. The impacts cited were often hackathon applications, which, important as they are, generally only prototype and point to potential impacts. Without getting to scale, few demo applications along can deliver substantial change.

Of course, some of this impact evidence gap may also be down to weaknesses in existing research. Some of the outcomes from open data publication are not easily picked up in visible applications or high profile news stories. That’s where the need for a qualitative research agenda really comes in.

Part 2: The Open Data Barometer

The Open Data Barometer is just one part of a wider open data programme at the World Wide Web Foundation, including the Open Data in Development Countries research project supported by Canada’s International Development Research Center. The main focus of that project over the last 12 months has been on establishing a network of case study research partners based in developing countries, each responding to both local concerns, and a shared research agenda, to understand how open data can be put to use in particular decision making and governance situations.

Our case study partners are drawn from Universities, NGOs and independent consultancies, and were selected from responses to an open call for proposals issues in mid 2012. Interestingly, many of these partners were not open data experts, or already involved in open data – but were focussed on particular social and policy issues, and were interested in looking at what open data meant for these. Focus areas for the cases range from budget and aid transparency, to higher education performance, to the location of sanitation facilities in a city. Together, these foundations gives the research network a number of important characteristics:

Firstly, whilst we have a shared research framework that highlights particular elements that each case study seeks to incorporate – from looking at the political, social and economic context of open data, through to the technical features of datasets and the actions of intermediaries – cases are also able to look at the different constraints exogenous to datasets themselves which affect whether or not data has a chance of making a difference.

Secondly, the research network works to build critical research capacity around open data – bringing new voices into the open data debate. For example, in Kenya, the Jesuit Hakimani Trust have an established record working on citizens access to information, but until 2013 had not looking at the issue of open data in Kenya. By incorporating questions about open data in their large-scale surveys of citizen attitudes, they start generating evidence that treats open data alongside other forms of access to information for poor and marginalisd citizens, generating new insights.

Thirdly, the research is open to unintended consequences of open data publication: good and bad – and can look for impacts outside the classic logic model of ‘data + apps = impact’. Indeed, as researchers in both Sao Paulo and Chennai have found, they have, as respected research intermediaries exploring open data use, been invited to get involved with shaping future government data collection practices. Gisele Craviero from the University of Sao Paulo uses the metaphor of an iceberg to highlight this importance of looking below the surface. The idea that opening data ultimately changes what data gets collected, and how it is handled inside the state should not be an alien idea for those involved in IATI – which has led to many aid agencies starting to geocode their data. But it is a route to effects often underplayed in explorations of the changes open data may be part of bringing about.

Part 3: Emerging findings

As mentioned, we’ve spent much of 2013 building up the Open Data in Developing Countries research network – and our case study parters are right now in the midst of their data collection and analysis. We’re looking forward to presenting full findings from this first phase of research towards the summer, but there are some emerging themes that I’ve been hearing from the network in my role as coordinator that I want to draw out. I should note that these points of analysis are preliminary, and are the product of conversations within the network, rather than being final statements, or points that I claim specific authorship over.

We need to unpack the definition of open data.

Open data is generally presented as a package with a formal definition. Open data is data that is proactively published, in machine-readable formats, and under open licenses. Without all of these: there isn’t open data. Yet, ODDC participants have been highlighting how the relative importance of these criteria varies from country to country. In Sierra Leone, for example, machine-readable formats might be argued to be less important right now than proactive publication, as for many datasets the authoritative copy may well be the copy on paper. In India, Nigeria or Brazil, the question of licensing may by mute: as it is either assumed that government data is free to re-use, regardless or explicit statements, or local data re-users may be unconcerned with violating licenses, based on a rational expectation that no-one will come after them.

Now – this is not to say that the Open Definition should be abandoned, but we should be critically aware of it’s primary strength: it helps to create a global open data commons, and to deliver on a vision of ‘Frictionless data’. Open data of this form is easier to access ‘top down’, and can more easily be incorporated into panopticon-like development dashboards, but the actual impact on ‘bottom up’ re-use may be minimal. Unless actors in a developing country are equipped with the skills and capacities to draw on this global commons, and to overcome other local ‘frictions’ to re-using data effectively, the direct ROI on the extra effort to meet a pure open definition might not accrue to those putting the effort in: and a dogmatic focus on strict definitions might even in some cases slow down the process of making data relatively more accessible. Understanding the trade offs here requires more research and analysis – but the point at least is made that there can be differences of emphasis in opening data, and these prioritise different potential users.

Supply is weak, but so is demand.

Talking at the Philippines Good Governance Summit a few weeks ago, Michael Canares presented findings from his research into how the local government Full Disclosure Policy (FDP) is affecting both ‘duty bearers’ responsible for supplying information on local budgets, projects, spend and so-on, and ‘claim holders’ – citizens and their associations who seek to secure good services from government. A major finding has been that, with publishers being in ‘compliance mode’, putting required information but in accessible formats, citizen groups articulated very little demand for online access to Full Disclosure Policy information. Awareness that the information was available was low, interest in the particular data published was low (that is, information made available did not match with any specific demand), and where citizen groups were accessing the data they often found they did not have the knowledge to make sense of or use it. The most viewed and download documents garnered no more than 43 visits in the period surveyed.

In open data, as we remove the formal or technical barriers to data re-use that come from licenses and non-standard formats, we encounter the informal hurdles, roadblocks and thickets that lay behind them. And even as those new barriers are removed through capacity building and intermediation, we may find that they were not necessarily holding back a tide of latent demand – but were rather theoretical barriers in the way of a progressive vision of an engaged citizenry and innovative public service provision. Beyond simply calling for the removal of barriers, this vision needs to be elaborated – whether through the designs of civic leaders, or through the distributed actions of a broad range of social activists and entrepreneurs. And the tricky challenge of culture change – changing expectations of who is, and can be, empowered – needs to be brought to the fore.

Innovative intermediation is about more than visualisation.

Early open data portals listed datasets. Then they started listing third party apps. Now, many profile interactive visualisations built with data, or provide visualisation tools. Apps and infographics have become the main thing people think of when it comes to ‘intermediaries’ making open data accessible. Yet, if you look at how information flows on the ground in developing countries, mobile messaging, community radio, notice boards, churches and chiefs centres are much more likely to come up as key sites of engagement with public information.

What might open data capacity building look like if we started with these intermediaries, and only brought technology in to improve the flow of data where that was needed? What does data need to be shaped like to enable these intermediaries to act with it? And how do the interests of these intermediaries, and the constituencies they serve, affect what will happen with open data? All these are questions we need to dig into further.

Summary

I said in the opening that this would be a presentation of critical reflections. It is important to emphasise that none of this constitutes an argument against open data. The idea that government data should be accessible to citizens retains its strong intrinsic appeal. Rather, in offering some critical remarks, I hope this can help us to consider different directions open data for development can take as it matures, and that ultimately we can move more firmly towards securing impacts from the important open data efforts so many parties are undertaking.

Joined Up Philanthropy data standards: seeking simplicity, and depth

[Summary: technical notes on work in progress for the Open Philanthropy data standard]

I’m currently working on sketching out a alpha version of a data standard for the Open Philanthropy project(soon to be 360giving). Based on work Pete Bass has done analysing the supply of data from trusts and foundations, a workshop on demand for the data, and a lot of time spent looking at existing standards at the content layer (eGrant/hGrantIATISchema.orgGML etc) and deeper technical layers (CSV, SDFXMLRDF,JSONJSON-Schema and JSON-LD), I’m getting closer to having a draft proposal. But – ahead of that – and spurred on by discussions at the Berkman Center this afternoon about the role of blogging in helping in the idea-formation process, here’s a rough outline of where it might be heading. (What follows is ‘thinking aloud’ from my work in progress, and does not represent any set views of the Open Philanthropy project)

Building Blocks: Core data plus

Joined Up Data Components

There are lots of things that different people might want to know about philanthropic giving, from where money is going, to detailed information on the location of grant beneficiaries, information on the grant-making process, and results information. However, few trusts and foundations have all this information to hand, and very few are likely to have it in a single system such that creating an single open data file covering all these different areas of the funding process would be an easy task. And if presented with a massive spreadsheet with 100s of columns to fill in, many potential data publishers are liable to be put off by the complexity. We need a simple starting point for new publishers of data, and a way for those who want to say more about their giving to share deeper and more detailed information.

The approach to that should be a modular, rather than monolithic standard: based on common building blocks. Indeed, in line with the Joined Up Data efforts initiated by Development Initiatives, many of these building blocks may be common across different data standards.

In the Open Philanthropy case, we’ve sketched out seven broad building blocks, in addition to the core “who, what and how much” data that is needed for each of the ‘funding activities’ that are the heart of an open philanthropy standard. These are:

  • Organisations - names, addresses and other details of the organisations funding, receiving funds and partnering in a project
  • Process - information about the events which take place during the lifetime of a funding activity
  • Locations - information about the geography of a funded activity – including the location of the organisations involved, and the location of beneficiaries
  • Transactions - information about pledges and transfers of funding from one party to another
  • Results - information about the aims and targets of the activity, and whether they have been met
  • Classifications - categorisations of different kinds that are applied to the funded activity (e.g. the subject area), or to the organisations involved (e.g. audited accounts?)
  • Documents - links to associated documents, and more in-depth descriptions of the activity

Some of these may provide more in-depth information about some core field (e.g. ‘Total grant amount’ might be part of the core data, but individual yearly breakdowns could be expressed within the transactions building block), whilst others provide information that is not contained in the core information at all (results or documents for example).

An ontological approach: flat > structured > linked

One of the biggest challenges with sketching out a possible standard data format for open philanthropy is in balancing the technical needs of a number of different groups:

  • Publishers of the data need it to be as simple as possible to share their information. Publishing open philanthropy must be simple, with a minimum of technical skills and resources required. In practice, that means flat, spreadsheet-like data structures.
  • Analysts like flat spreadsheet-style data too – but often want to be able to cut it in different ways. Standards like IATI are based on richly structured XML data, nested a number of levels deep, which can make flattening the data for analysts to use it very challenging.
  • Coders prefer structured data. In most cases for web applications that means JSON. Whilst someexpressive path languages for JSON are emerging, ideally a JSON structure should make it easy for a coder to simply drill-down in the tree to find what they want, so being able to look foractivity.organisations.fundingOrganisation[0] is better than having to iterate through all theactivity.organisation nodes to find the one which has “type”:”fundingOrganisation”.
  • Data integrators want to read data into their own preferred database structures, from noSQL to relational databases. Those wanting to integrate heterogeneous data sources from different ‘Joined Up Data’ standards might also benefit from Linked Data approaches, and graph-based data using cross-mapped ontologies.

It’s pretty hard to see how a single format for representing data can meet the needs of all these different parties: if we go with a flat structure it might be easier for beginners to publish, but the standard won’t be very expressive, and will be limited to use in a small niche. If we go with richer data structures, the barriers to entry for newcomers will be too high. Standards like IATI have faced challenges through the choice of an expressive XML structure which, whilst able to capture much of the complexity of information about aid flows, is both tricky for beginners, and programatically awkward to parse for developers. There are a lot of pitfalls an effective, and extensible, open philanthropy data standard will have to avoid.

In considering ways to meet the needs of these different groups, the approach I’ve been exploring so far is to start from a detailed, ontology based approach, and then to work backwards to see how this could be used to generate JSON and CSV templates (and as JSON-LD context), allowing transformation between CSV, JSON and Linked Data based only on rules taken from the ontology.

In practice that means I’ve started sketching out an ontology using Protege in which there are top entities for ‘Activity’, ‘Organisation’, ‘Location’, ‘Transaction’, ‘Documents’ and so-on (each of the building blocks above), and more specific sub-classed entities like ‘fundedActivity’, ‘beneficiaryOrganisation’, ‘fundingOrganisation’, ‘beneficiaryLocation’ and so-on. Activities, Organisations, Locations etc. can all have many different data properties, and there are then a range of different object properties to relate ‘fundedActivities’ to other kinds of entity (e.g. a fundedActivity can have a fundingOrganisation and so-on). If this all looks very rough right now, that’s because it is. I’ve only built out a couple of bits in working towards a proof-of-concept (not quite there yet): but from what I’ve explored so far it looks like building a detailed ontology should also allow mappings to other vocabularies to be easily managed directly in the main authoritative definition of the standard: and should mean when converted into Linked Data heterogenous data using the same or cross-mapped building blocks can be queried together. Now – from what I’ve seen ontologies can tend to get out of hand pretty quickly – so as a rule I’m trying to keep things as flat as possible: ideally just relationships between Activities and the other entities, and then data properties.

What I’ve then been looking at is how that ontology could be programatically transformed:

  • (a) Into a JSON data structure (and JSON-LD Context)
  • (b) Into a set of flat tables (possibly described with Simple Data Format if there are tools for which that is useful)

And so that using the ontology, it should be possible to take a set of flat tables and turn them into structure JSON and, via JSON-LD, into Linked Data. If the translation to CSV takes place using the labels of ontology entities and properties rather than their IDs as column names, then localisation of spreadsheets should also be in reach.

Rough work in progress... worked example coming soon

Rough work in progress. From ontology to JSON structure (and then onwards to flat CSV model). Full worked example coming soon…

I hope to have a more detailed worked example of this to post shortly, or, indeed, a post detailing the dead-ends I came to when working this through further. But – if you happen to read this in the next few weeks, before that occurs – and have any ideas, experience or thoughts on this approach – I would be really keen to hear your ideas. I have been looking for any examples of this being done already – and have not come across anything: but that’s almost certainly because I’m looking in the wrong places. Feel free to drop in a comment below, or tweet @timdavies with your thoughts.

Network Stories: Hacking Complex, Ongoing News

[Summary: a join post with Ivan Sigal reflection on our learning from a recent Berkman Centre Network Stories hack-day]

There are hundreds of different digital tools for building online stories, and myriad ways to use them. Building stories online often requires creating alternative production and distribution paths for stories, in the context of networked, online communities.

The choice of tools affects the way a story is told and experienced. When starting a new project it can be challenging to work out which tools to use, how to use them and whether they work together.

Over the last few months the Network Stories group at the Berkman Center has been exploring different approaches to storytelling in digital media. This Saturday around 20 of us got together at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media for a full day, hands-on exploration of different digital storytelling approaches. We were a diverse group: coders, journalists, data scientists, theorists, filmmakers, scholars and artists.

Our starting point was Global Voices special coverage of the #Shahbag protests in Bangladesh. This story has unfolded over the past year around the contentious issue of justice for war crimes from Bangladesh’s 1971 war of indendependence, in cycles of protest and counterprotest. It is a complex, multi-layered narrative that has received little coverage in the mainstream media in relation to its importance for the future of Bangladesh. We had built an archive of Global Voices and related content, including explainers, mass media coverage of the event, and a selection of tools, so that all participants were starting with the same material. This blog post reflects on our engagement with that content.

Reworking special coverage

The Global Voices special coverage pages are based around a list of content posts on the site, with a brief introduction. The #Shahbag page lists 23 posts, from December 2012 to December 2013, centred around the main period of protests in February 2013, as well as a collection of Global Voices Advocacy posts related to #Shahbag, links to archives of photos, videos, music, social media sites, and platforms and communities dedicated to supporting and documenting the protests.

We set out to address the challenge of how to design an interface for a complex, ongoing story with many sources, incorporating ongoing chronicle of stories analysis of the data inside those stories (hyperlinks, worldclouds, categories, tags, people) * databases of participant-generated and witness content (images, sound, video, social media, blogs, maps etc)

Much of the day was spent shifting between the whiteboard and laptop screens, experimenting with different ways to organise the post content already on the Global Voices site, whilst also thinking more broadly about the issues involved in communicating multifaceted stories.

Narrative and technical challenges

Developing a digital interface into a story involves addressing both narrative and technical challenges. On the narrative level, we need to consider:

  • How to delimit the story. With complex, ongoing stories it can be hard to identify the start or end of a story. The web is littered with platforms and projects that simply fade away or cease to be updated, without a clear point of closing.
  • Different layers of engagment for different levels of interest. Allowing a reader to enter the story at different points, whether for a quick overview or to explore a story in depth.
  • Navigation and discovery features. Storytelling platforms and projects use many search and discovery protocols, drawing on images, tags, maps and different archive structures. These influence how readers will find a way into the story.

There are also technical issues to overcome. With hosted tools available for collating and organising content their stabilty is in question over the long term. If such platforms shut down or make backward incompatible upgrades, a well curated story can quickly fall apart. It’s important to consider the reliability of platform and plugins,so the story doesn’t break and/or need endless maintenance. We also wanted to consider how a story interface could be kept lightweight in terms of bandwidth and load time, and could function well for a range of different kinds of stories.

Digging in: tactics

We took a number of approaches to look at how interfaces and routes into the story might be created – quickly iterating through a variety of different tools.

Experiment 1: WordPress, Auto-tagging and Impress.js

First up, we grabbed a collection of the Global Voices blog posts related to Shahbag as an RSS feed.

Because Special Features in the site are not currently collected together in any particular tag or category (the curation takes place by adding links to the Special Coverage post) we used RSS feed output from the search for this. (Tip: To fetch the second page of search results on the feed add /page/2/ to the wordpress URL such as in http://globalvoicesonline.org/page/2/?s=shahbag&feed=rss2).

Using the RSS Import module in a WordPress.org install (Note: own server needed) we set up a copy of all the Shahbag posts in an environment where we could experiment with them.

We first tried using the Impress.js WordPress Plugin to see if we could display posts in a more dynamic and interactive way. It quickly became clear that we’d need to spend a lot more time learning to use the plugin and potentially adapting it for our needs. Knowing another group were experimenting with impress.js we moved on.

We next tested whether automatically applied tags might provide a way into the story – adding to the manual categories that Global Voices already gives to stories. For this we used wordpress plugins which runs post text through Open Calais - a natural language processing tool from Thomson Reuters that identifies people, places and themes within text. The result was an ability to drill down into posts by many more tags and categories, but the set of tags were shaped by the entities already in Thomson Reuters knowledge base. We wanted to compare these tags with the Global Voices curated categories, but found these had not imported properly through the RSS feed.

At this point, we took a step back from Experiment #1 to head back to the whiteboard and think about how we wanted to display posts, and whether the autotagging was really supporting that.

Experiment 2: Filtered post list

We began to explore a simple idea to allow users to reorder posts based on their own interests. Global Voices special coverage pages currently show newest posts first. For a new reader, reading oldest the newest might be more natural. In the current listing, different themes within the story are not brought to the surface. So - looking at interfaces like shuffle we started to think about the different themes and threads within the #Shahbag narrative.

Ideally these might be captured within WordPress, but by this point we’d switched to a handcoded approach to get a prototype ready for the end of the day. We made an abortive attempt to scrape data from the Global Voices site using import.io (to get at the author names and key images for each post which are included in the RSS feeds). We then fired up a Google Spreadsheet to manually add extra annotations to each of the posts, including thematic classification, key images and author details. Then, on a mirrored copy of a Global Voices page (grabbed using wget) we used this information to update the web page mark-up to show featured images and headlines rather than just straight post listings. With jQuery it was possible to then add interactivity, so that a reader could pick a theme, and just see the posts related to that them, either in reverse or forward chronological order.

Building on this, we also started to explore how showing all the posts from a given author might provide a route into the stories – displaying the authors profile picture against each story.

Reflections

We made progress in thinking about how to build an architecture that allow users to order a series of stories for themselves, based on their interest and prior familiarity. The core idea is to encourage localized search paths within a landing page for the story, controlled by the reader. The goal for the design is to ease entry into complex stories, but be lightweight and functional within a WordPress or other popular CMS platform. The procedure we designed will reorder the content on the page based on different functions, such as timelines, themes, characters, and media types, employing a simple tagging structure. More advanced implementations might allow multiple category sorting, a dynamic visualization of categories along a timeline, a sorting of images from relevant databases based on categories, or tagging images and stories by geolocation, using maps as interfaces. Another alternative might be to allow internal search based on natural language processing tools such as Calais.

This event will hopefully be the first of several in which we will explore different paths and processes in the building of online stories. Other participants have posted their reflections as well, including some thoughts from Matthew Battles on the Metalab site and Heather Craig on the Center for Civic Media blog.

ICTs and Anti-Corruption: Uptake, use and impacts

[Summary: The forth section of our draft paper on ICTs and Anti-corruption looks at the evidence on uptake, use and impacts. We'd love your comments...

I’m currently posting draft sections of a report on ICTs and anti-corruption to invite comments before the final paper is written up in a few weeks time. If you’ve any comments on the draft, please do add them into the Google Doc draft or leave a note below. This forth and final section looks at uptake of anti-corruption ICTs in developing country contexts and issues concerning who uses these technologies.

4. UPTAKE, USE AND IMPACTS

Government incentives aside, it is important for advocates and funders of ICT-enabled anti-corruption activity to consider the factors that may affect the impact of these interventions in developing countries. As previously outlined, ICT-based reforms tend to focus on either transactions or transparency. Both rely upon the engagement of citizens. Citizens are crucial either to access and respond to information that is made available through transparency, or to originate and communicate to government their own experience through transactional channels. Therefore, it is important to ask what incentives and barriers citizens have for such engagement, and to explore what kinds of citizen engagement are important to the success of certain ICTs.

 

4.1 THE CITIZEN ROLE

Much of the limited evidence we do have on citizen engagement with transparency and accountability ICTs comes from cases where those tools/platforms have been deployed by civil society. Avila et. al. divide interventions into two kinds: push and pull transparency (Avila, Feigenblatt, Heacock, & Heller, 2011). In the former, citizens speak up, and communicate their experience of an issue; in the later, citizens ‘pull’ down information from an available pool and use it to act in some way. In practice, many interventions require both: citizens to access information, and citizens to act through exercising their voice and pushing issues onto the agenda (Avila, R. et al, 2009). An ICT intervention might be designed around the idea of citizens acting individually (e.g. in transactional citizen reporting channels), or around the idea of citizens acting collectively, as in the idea of that, on identifying corrupt activity through information on a transparency portal, or an open data catalogue, citizens speak out politically on the need for change. Citizen action in these cases may be direct, or mediated. In mediated cases, technical intermediaries, sometimes termed “infomediaries”, play a particularly important role in theories of change around how open data may be used by citizens (Steinberg, 2011).

 

4.2 WHICH CITIZENS?

The effort, as well as the skills, that each of these different models (push or pull; individual or collective action) demand from the citizens varies significantly across ICT interventions. Users can be passive consumers of information, accumulating it to use at some future point, such as when voting. Or, as Fung et al (2010) outline, they can be requested to act on information that they receive, drawing on a range of resources to make a change in their behaviour as a result of transparent information, for example in citizens’ reporting channel (from government or civil society) or in participatory budget exercises.

 

Differences emerge not only between the users of different models, also amongst users in each of them. The skills, resources and capacity to influence others are not the same between mass users (general public) and organized entities (such as NGOs, journalist, companies and public officials). According to Fung et. al. (2011) the interventions that aim to increase political accountability (understood as the demand over the “behaviour of political officials whose policies have more generalized effects”) generally rely upon centralized users (media, NGOs, among others) while the general public (decentralized actors) tend to be more inclined towards interventions designed to demand service accountability (ibid.). This distinction seems to present some sort of correlation with the assumption that people values information that is directly relevant to their well-being and they are interested in a few select political issues that are directly relevant to their lives.

 

Besides the incentives behind each user, there certainly is a disparity in terms of resources to disseminate the information and also regarding the capacity to channel demands through the appropriate institutional channels. Following Fung et. al. “political campaigns and candidates, for example, may be far more sensitive and responsive to the criticisms that journalists make than to the more diffuse, harder to discern views of mass voters” (Fung et al., 2011).

 

In terms of the characteristics of the mass users, there is limited analysis on the demographics of ICT-led transparency initiatives user. Some reports argue that poorer demographics are the most affected by corruption (Knox, 2009). Despite that, the analysis that does exist suggests that more educated, higher income and more technologically comfortable demographics of the population are more incline to engage with ICT-led interventions (Kuriyan, Bailur, Gigler, & Park, 2012). It is perhaps not surprising as these groups are the most likely to be online and to engage with Internet applications more frequently, as well as more likely to participate in politics. However, the implications of this for the design of technology for anti-corruption projects is offer an afterthought, rather than a key design consideration from the start. The fact that ICT-based innovations may primarily reach relatively predictable (and relatively affluent) proportions of the population (at least in the short term) may play a role in making such approaches appealing to governments who believe they can manage any input they may receive within existing institutional processes.

 

4.3 BARRIERS TO UPTAKE

According to figures on Internet penetration, in 2013 there is still a big gap in terms of users between developing and developed countries (ITU, 2013). These figures show a penetration of 70% approximately for developed countries while only a 30% for the developing ones.

 

Traditionally the digital divide has had a correlation with the difficulties to access (and use[1]) Internet connexion. Those difficulties could be related to access to old computers, high price connexions, among others. Some analysts (Gurstein, 2011) argue that some of these initiatives (open data initiatives, in particular) might present a new divide among the population. Together with the digital divide, the rapid development in ICT tools seems to add new barriers to entry.

 

Current discourses on ICT tools for transparency and accountability suggest (implicitly or sometimes explicitly) that with these new tools everybody can make use of the data and information provided as well as act upon them. However, there are numerous barriers that are not related only to the access to Internet or others technologies (digital divide) but also, as Gurstein mentioned, to the educational resources/skills which would allow for the effective use of those resources.

“…the lack of these foundational requirements means that the exciting new outcomes available from open data are available only to those who are already reasonably well provided for technologically and with other resources.” (Gurstein, 2011)

 

For the community of potential users to be able to interact with the project, they need the necessary skills to use digital technology as well as to manage, and assess information regarding public interest issues. That is, it is important to count with an ICT literate community. This is relevant for government project as well as civil society initiatives.

 “..the release of public sector information without a commensurate increase in data literacy will do little to empower the average citizen.” (Gigler, Custer, & Rahemtulla, 2011)

 

Furthermore, in developing contexts, not only ICT literacy is a key element for the success of a project but also language differences as well as the material factors such as access to low cost technologies (digital divide not only in terms of access to technology but also regarding the skills to effectively make use of those tools). As explained in the Ugandan context:

“A major constraint mentioned […] was funding shortages. This was followed by the high cost of accessing the tools, the capability to use (language and literacy) the mainly Internet or mobile based platforms.” (Kalemera, Nalwoga, & Wakabi, 2012)

 

In that sense, according to Courtney Tolmie, director at the Research for Development Institute, websites that allow reporting in the local languages, and that also receive high levels of publicity, and accept SMS texting (a much more accessible technology in many developing countries), should prove more successful (Dawson, 2012).

 

Even in the absence of some of the above-mentioned barriers, such as an ICT literacy community with an easy access to technology, there is not a guarantee of a robust citizen engagement.

“… increasing the availability of Internet based information does not necessarily mean that citizens will use it to demand greater accountability. The proportion of citizens who are prepared to be consistently engaged in the process of governance is relatively small. Even where there are high rates of Internet penetration, experience has shown that creating a good website or online portal does not guarantee its use” (Bhatnagar, 2003)

 

4.4 CONTEXT

All of the above-mentioned factors can provide insights in terms of user trends and pre-conditions for that uptake. However, when considering technological interventions it is important to consider the legal, policy and social context in which technology is introduced. In that sense, low engagement could also be a result of distrust or poor relationships with the intended users of disclosed information (government). Following Finnegan (2012) “Distrust, animosity and secrecy are commonly cited issues for technology projects working towards government accountability (Finnegan, 2012).

 

A clear example of that limitation to engage with the general public is shown by the experience of the civil society initiative, “Map Kibera”, a community-mapping project. The local mappers working on the project were originally met “with suspicion by residents, and questioned about their right to collect and record information. Some mappers were asked whether they were being paid for their work, or were asked for payment in return for the data they received” (Finnegan, 2012).

 

This poor relationship with government might be also related, among other reasons, to the frustration coming from the absence of institutional mechanisms to submit the input/demand/grievance from the community of users.

 

Even when those mechanisms are in place, the lack of a timely response (or the complete absence of feedback) can lead to apathy from the users. Clear evidence of the use of the data/input collected and their contribution in correcting and/or punishing wrongdoing could incentivize users to engage with anti-corruption ICT projects more in figure. For example, in Bangalore, Bhaskar Rao, the Transport Commissioner for the state of Karnataka, used the data collected on I Paid a Bribe to push through reforms in the motor vehicle department. As a result, and in order to avoid bribes, licenses are now applied for online (Strom, 2012), and citizens have seen an impact from their use of transactional ICTs to report corruption.

 

Anupama Dokeniya explains that “transparency policies will achieve little if the political system does not create the incentives for officials to be sanctioned when corruption is exposed, for service providers to be penalized when poor performance or absenteeism is revealed, or for safeguards or structural reforms to be adopted when evidence of systemic governance problems emerge”  (Dokeniya, 2012). The same logic can be applied to all the ICT-led projects we have surveyed. Technology just provides the tools for a greater number of citizens to access a large amount of information, but the pivotal driver of success in these initiatives are broadly the same as for any other transparency policy.

 

Furthermore, following Finnegan, in many cases, even when there is significant interest from communities of users, if the application or platform is unable to produce any change, the interest and support from those before-enthusiastic users start to fade. Conversely, when participants realize that their contribution could lead to any relevant outcome, the esteem for the tool increases (Finnegan, 2012).

 

4.5 INTERMEDIARIES

To lower those barriers (absence of an ICT literate community, lack of easy access to technology and/or high costs of accessing internet and other technologies), when a project is focused on government’s disclosure of public information (open data initiatives, transparency portals), it is important to count with the presence of intermediaries (centralized users) to amplify and simplify the disclosed data/information. To create awareness among citizens and to provide the tools for those citizens to later scrutinize, assess and hold governments accountable, intermediaries are key actors to engage users with that information, especially in political accountability initiatives as they translate the sometimes abstract ideas and data into simple messages and stories that other citizens can relate to.

 

Genuinely promoting transparency requires the hard work of doing investigative research, publishing reports, and promoting them to the media. Bubble 2.0 hype aside, the fanciest pop-up windows and Google Maps mashups won’t change that.” (Swartz, 2006)

 

Those intermediaries can be social or technical skilled groups. Some of the intermediaries may focus on creating applications to simplify the access and use of the raw data and some others may help with information distribution and citizens’ engagement to demand accountability. As previously mentioned, no every citizen is eager to engage with transparency initiatives (due to a lack of interest, skills or resources), therefore to intermediaries play a key role in the use of those provided ICT tools. The existence and capacity of technically skilled intermediaries is likely to be an important determining factor for the success of many ICT-led interventions, particularly open data interventions.

 

4.6 IMPACT

To present a clear idea about the above-mentioned questions on incentives and desired outcomes could help to the assessment of these interventions. There is no proper impact assessment without the presence of a theory of change.

 

Anecdotal evidence can be found about particular initiatives and some of the changes they produce, however, there is a lack of systematic assessments of these policies and their relationship to greater government transparency, accountability and participation in decision-making. In that sense, there are several recounts of individual initiatives but in terms of developing frameworks to assess each type of ICT initiative, there is a lack of academic research.

 

Moreover, in terms of initiatives related to the disclosure of information (transparency portals and Open Data Initiatives) the idea of counting visits to a website and/or the number of ‘downloads” of certain datasets or documents cannot be presented as indicators of usage, and much less, of impact of any of these policies. In many cases, these initiatives are compared to one another in terms of number of published documents and datasets as well as number of visits. However, these numbers could lead to wrong results, or partial ones at its best.

 

 

References

 

Avila, R., Feigenblatt, H., Heacock, R., & Heller, N. (2011). Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability: New technologies.

Bhatnagar, S. (2003). E-government and access to information. In Global Corruption Report (pp. 24–32).

Dawson, S. (2012). Citizens wield web tools to combat petty bribery. Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Dimaggio, P., & Hargittai, E. (2001). From the “Digital Divide” to “Digital Inequality”: Studying Internet Use as Penetration Increases.

Dokeniya, A. (2012). #6 from 2012: Opening Government Data. But Why? People, Spaces, Deliberation World Bank Blog. Retrieved from http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/opening-government-data-why

Finnegan, S. (2012). Using technology for collaborative transparency?: Risks and opportunities. In GIS Watch 2012 (Vol. 8, pp. 29–33).

Fung, A., Gilman, H. R., & Shkabatur, J. (2011). Impact case studies from middle income and developing countries New technologies.

Gigler, B.-S., Custer, S., & Rahemtulla, H. (2011). Realizing the Vision of Open Government Data: Opportunities, Challenges and Pitfalls (Abridged Version).

Gurstein, M. (2011). Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone? First Monday, 16(2).

ITU. (2013). ICT Facts and Figures – The World in 2013.

Kalemera, A., Nalwoga, L., & Wakabi, W. (2012). How ICT tools are promoting citizen participation in Uganda.

Knox, C. (2009). Dealing with sectoral corruption in Bangladesh: Developing citizen involvement. Public Administration and Development, 29(2), 117–132. doi:10.1002/pad.523

Kuriyan, R., Bailur, S., Gigler, B.-S., & Park, K. R. (2012). Technologies for Transparency and Accountability. Washington DC.

Steinberg, T. (2011). Asking the wrong question about Data.gov. Premise (blog). Retrieved from http://steiny.typepad.com/premise/2011/04/asking-the-wrong-question-about-datagov.html

Strom, S. (2012, March 6). I Paid a Bribe and Similar Corruption-Exposing Sites Spread – NYTimes.com. New York Times. New York.

Swartz, A. (2006). Disinfecting the Sunlight Foundation. Aaron Swartz’s Raw Thoughs. Retrieved from http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/dissunlight



[1] However, it is important that access and use are not necessarily synonymous. Some studies have shown that: “…more people have access than use it (NTIA 1998); and, second, that whereas resources drive access, demand drives intensity of use among people who have access” (Dimaggio & Hargittai, 2001)

 

Thoughts? Reflections? Add a comment on the draft by 23rd November.

ICTs and anti-corruption: exploring the incentives

[Summary: the third section from a draft U4 paper on exploring the incentives for adopting ICT innovation in the fight against corruption]

I’m currently posting draft sections of a report on ICTs and anti-corruption to invite comments before the final paper is written up in a few weeks time. If you’ve any comments on the draft, please do add them into the Google Doc draft or leave a note below. 

INCENTIVES AND ADOPTION

Although rigorous evidence for the efficacy of government-led ICTs for anti-corruption is limited (Mcgee & Gaventa, 2011) it is clear that (a) it is reasonable to expect that, well implemented and in the right context, ICTs can be an important asset in the fight against corruption; and (b) current evidence gaps concerning the role of ICT in anti-corruption are not damping enthusiasm for ICTs based anti-corruption actions by governments and civil society across the world.

By far the most common commitments made in the first round of Open Government Partnership National Action Plans were centred on e-government and open data. This provides further evidence of the extent to which transactional and transparency ICT based solutions have become a central part of the open government and anti-corruption narrative. It might also be argued that anti-corruption has also become a key part of the sales narrative for new ICTs and e-government.

The way in which ‘technology for transparency’ innovations are adopted has an impact on how effective they are likely to be, and the incentives driving adoption will inevitably shape how an innovation is applied in practice. David Heald (2006) has suggested that transparency can come in a number of forms: upwards (hierarchical relationships; when the superior can see the actions of the subordinate), downwards (when the ruled can see the behaviour/results of their rulers; agencies can see behaviour up the management chain); outwards (when agents inside an organisation can see what is happening outside it); and inwards (when those outside can observe what is happening inside the organisation). In is useful to consider for each of the different incentives that encourage a government to engage with ICTs for anti-corruption, which form of transparency it is most likely to lead to, and whether it will also enable other forms of transparency at the same time.

In the following paragraphs we consider at a broad level a range of different motivations that might drive governmental adoption of ICTs with an anti-corruption potential, with a particular focus on the incentives for developing country governments to engage. Our list is speculative, and more research is needed to fully survey and analyse the motivations and incentives driving a broad sample of developing country anti-corruption ICT adoption. This noted, amongst other reasons, governments may be motivated by:

  • An interest in the promise of e-government and open data to improve government efficiency;
  • An interest in the potential of open data as a resource for economic growth and innovation;
  • A desire to use technology to address specific principal-agent problems in the state;
  • Outside pressure from funders or the private sector, or competitive pressures to be seen to be part of a global trend;
  • Bottom-up pressure from citizens, or a desire to domesticate otherwise disruptive technologies;

These motivations are not mutually exclusive – and in many cases ICT driven open government initiatives are justified in relation to a number of these reasons at the same time. 

3.1 IMPROVING INFORMATION FLOW AND GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY

The Open Government Partnership declaration states that it is seeking to make “governments more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective.” The pairing of transparency with effectiveness is a common one, often based on the idea of horizontal (outwards/inwards) transparency. In other words, the use of transparency to increase the free flow of information between different agencies and partners of the state. For example, this model is evident in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) where a strong motivation for sharing structured open data is to support improved coordination and planning between different donor agencies. Vertical downward transparency (citizens of donor and recipient countries able to see where money is spent) is, to some extents, an attractive by-product of enabling more efficient exchange of data between aid agencies and governments.

Open data has particular value as a tool to break down organisational silos. Both the UK Government and World Bank have reported that many of the hits on their public-facing open data portals have been from their own staff, accessing data they, in theory, have previously had access to, but in practice had not been able to find, get hold of or use. Contrary to the design of many e-government systems, which implement layers of access control and permissions – the move towards open data allows government departments and their boundary partners (Earl, Carden, & Smutylo, 2001) of government to interact more efficiently through flows of data. Open data is also associated with processes of standardisation, often based on open standards (Fitzgerald & Pappalardo, 2009). When different departments, agencies and governments adopt common data standards then new ways of combining data across silos are facilitated – and a more competitive market for modular tools that work with the data can be stimulated, challenging patterns of vendor lock-in that can occur with large ICT systems (Dunleavy et. al., 2006; Dunleavy & Margetts, 2004).

Many contemporary arguments concerning the potential of ICTs and open data to improve government efficiency draw heavily on references to Silicon Valley start-ups and Internet firms. Projects developing ‘feedback loop’ citizen reporting channels in particular are likely to refer to examples such as ‘Trip Adviser’ where the private sector appears at first glance to have created effective information gathering from consumers. Policies that promise to bring to a country some of the glamour and success of Silicon Valley innovation can be very appealing for political leaders in both developed and developing countries alike. However, behind the talk of efficient and effective government through technology there may also lie another agenda. Bates has argued that the UK’s open data programme represents a tool of de-regulation and privatisation of public services, by making it easier for profit-seeking firms to take on roles of the state. In ‘Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Participation in Practice’, Tim O’Reilly (who popularised the phrase Web 2.0 to capture the interactive possibilities of the modern Web) writes about ‘Government as a Platform’, in which the state provides basic foundations on which private innovation takes place, delivering efficient and customised services to citizens (O’Reilly, 2010). Behind ‘efficiency’ incentives of certain ICT and open government processes, there may then also lie in some cases a profit motive, encouraging certain parties to ‘sell’ the benefits of opening data in ways that will enable them to enter markets for public service provision, and where the outcomes of this for levels of corruption are likely to be determined by local contextual factors.

3.2 ENABLING INNOVATION AND ECONOMIC GROWTH

A related promise that can draw governments’ attention to transparency related ICTs, and open data in particular, is the idea that government data provides a raw material for innovation and economic growth. Here, ICTs are not adopted for their anti-corruption potential, though it is possible that that can be a side-benefit, as information is made available and anti-corruption innovations are theoretically enabled alongside other profit-motivated innovation. In the main, the case that open data will bring about economic growth through stimulating new economic activity remains theoretical, rather than clearly evidenced (Dekkers, Poleman, te Velde, & de Vries, 2006; Hammell, Perricos, Branch, & Lewis, 2011; Newbery, Bently, & Pollock, 2008) although the size of the market for US Weather Data and Geo data (which have both been available openly for many years) are often cited. In discussing the potential of the Kenya Open Data Initiative, the then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of ICT Dr Bitange N’Demo spoke of the potential of open data on trade to significantly stimulate better trading between African nations, leading to an economic boost for his region (Open Institute, 2012).

It has been argued that the existence of an economic argument for open data has helped sustain movements for open data following the global economic crisis, where a movement based only on transparency arguments would have stalled as governments cut back on spending (Weinstein & Goldstein, 2012). Regardless, it is important to explore whether the datasets relevant to stimulate economic activity are the same datasets that can support transparent and accountability government, and to pay close attention to how the envisaged uses for data will shape the ways in which it is provided. This issues has recently come to a head in the United Kingdom where the mechanism for engagement with government on open data release, the Open Data User Group has recently appointed a membership dominated by large private sector interests, rather than representatives of citizen groups.

Whilst these first two incentives have focussed primarily on open data, the following sections apply equally to all forms of transparency and transactional ICTs.

3.3 ADDRESSING PRINCIPLE-AGENT PROBLEMS

Principle-agent problems concern the challenge of one party (the principal) motivating and/or compelling some other party (the agent) to act in the interests of the principal, rather than in the agent’s self-interest (Eisenhardt, 1989). Principal-agent problems are the heart of many corruption situations (Azfar, 2002). For example, citizen (as principal) frequently struggle to get the government officials (as, in theory, the delegated agent of the citizens) to act in the citizen’s interest, rather than the official exploiting their power to act in their own interest and extract rents. Similarly, reforming officials inside government may struggle to control the action of their officials in the field. Transactional and transparency ICTs can all play a role in changing the balance of power within these principal-agent problems, and can offer reforming governments and officials a mechanism for addressing corrupt activity.

Governments are not monolithic. Corruption benefits certain actors in government, and not others. ICTs can be a resource that one area of government uses to secure the behaviour of another, through allowing parties outside of government to provide the scrutiny or political pressure needed to address an issue when government does not have the resource to provide that scrutiny for itself. For example, Brazilian officials recognised that they could not inspect whether funds sent to local government had reached every local area, but by publishing the information on funds allocated, they enabled citizens to act as an extra watchdog, helping them to detect potential corruption. Citizen reporting channels work on the same idea: by taking local officials out of the complaint or reporting process (where they may previously have simply ignored or lost reports of problems that would have affected their rent seeking) the principals in government are better able to control their agents.

This is perhaps the most positive anti-corruption incentive for ICT adoption. Reports on experiences in Georgia provide one example of corruption falling dramatically through state adoption of ICTs in this way, with a consequent increase in public and business confidence (Alam & Southworth, 2012). However, reformers cannot rely on ICT alone: political situations also need to be conducive to the use of the information that ICTs help to flow. The nature of ICTs introduced, and transparency mandates applied is also important to explore here. Transparency in one area of government can empower others in both positive and negative ways. For example, both the UK and China have sought to increase the transparency of local governments. This may increase citizen oversight of government, but it can also increase upwards transparency of the periphery to the centre, strengthening central government over and above local government in ways that may have political and policy consequences.

3.4 RESPONDING TO INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE AND FUNDING FLOWS

Doug Hadden of Freebalance has suggested that “transparency has become a competitive sport” (Hadden, 2013) with fragile states and emerging economies joining in a global race to adopt ICT-enabled transparency tools and platforms. The adoption of anti-corruption ICTs may then be seen as part of policy transfer and replication between states, supported by a strong global discourse. The current discourses around ICT enabled transparency and accountability may play a significant role in shaping the incentives of developing country governments. The availability of funding to invest in ICTs, the advocacy of global institutions such as the World Bank, and private philanthropists such as Omidyar Foundation, all combine to create an environment in which turning to technology is appealing, and comparatively likely to yield external funding as against some other kinds of reform. This may act to support progressive reformers inside governments, and may enable experimentation with ICTs as a useful tool in the anti-corruption toolbox.

However, the international discourse around technology for transparency also risks allowing a ‘fig leaf’ effect, in which, by introducing technology innovations, states can appear to be engaging with the transparency, accountability and anti-corruption agenda, whilst dodging substantive reforms. Publishing low-salience information with a large fanfare may be a good way for states to gain attention and initial credibility without actually facing high political costs, or actually addressing corruption. Similarly, in regimes with low state effectiveness, where corrupt activity isn’t captured in the data, or there are no balancing audit and reconciliation mechanisms such as exist in the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), then the potential credibility gain from developing a transparency initiative may outweigh the potential risks to established rent-seeking.

3.5 RESPONDING TO BOTTOM-UP PRESSURE, AND DOMESTICATING DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION

As with each of the incentives outlined, the last we will explore is two-edged. As we noted earlier, much of the ‘policy transfer’ around ICTs in anti-corruption has happened not at the level of states, but within civil society, and between networks of progressive technologists. Through ICT Hubs, online networks and global conferences, such as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s ‘OKFest’ and ‘Open Government Data Camp’ events, and with backing of philanthropists, such as investments enabling MySociety.org to internationalise their suite of citizen reporting channel tools such as Fix My Street, and supply their implementation in developing countries, independent actors and organised civil society have created ICT transparency tools in many developing countries (Avila, Feigenblatt, Heacock, & Heller, 2011). This has often supported the emergence of domestic campaigns for open data (albeit often centred on small groups of technologists). Established civil society groups, in some countries, have also called on governments to pursue transparency policies through portals and reporting channels.

Governments then may adopt ICTs in response to bottom up citizen and civil society pressure. This may take the form of delivering what citizens were seeking, in terms of access to information, data and feedback channels. It may also act to ‘domesticate’ the ‘disruptive innovations’ developed within civil society. For example, whilst civil society platforms for submitting RTI request such as Alaveteli make requests and replies public, government implemented online channels for RTI requests may offer less transparency. By providing a ‘competitor’ to the civil society platform, but one without certain ‘disruptive’ features of that outside tool, a states response to innovative ICTs may blunt their potential.

3.6 DO INCENTIVES MATTER?

In this section we have taken a fairly critical and sceptical stance towards the incentives that may drive state adoption of ICTs with an anti-corruption potential. In doing so, we do not suggest that advocates of ICT enabled open government have bad incentives. Many have the very best incentives and intents for their pursuit of technology, transparency and accountability. However, we do seek to draw attention to the presence of mixed incentives in many ICT projects, and to highlight the importance of identifying which interests and incentives are stronger in any situation. This has implications for funders in considering who they back, and how they promote ICT-related innovations, carefully managing the tensions of technologies that can have many impacts, not all of which inherently challenge corruption.

References

Alam, A., & Southworth, V. R. (2012). Fighting Corruption in Public Services Chronicling Georgia’ s Reforms. World Bank.

Avila, R., Feigenblatt, H., Heacock, R., & Heller, N. (2011). Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability: New technologies.

Azfar, O. (2002). Disrupting Corruption. In A. Shah (Ed.), Performance Accountability and Combating Corruption (pp. 255–284). Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Dekkers, M., Poleman, F., te Velde, R., & de Vries, M. (2006). MEPSIR Study – 2006.

Dunleavy, P., & Margetts, H. (2004). Government IT Performance and the Power of the IT Industry?: A Cross-National Analysis. In Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (pp. 1–42).

Dunleavy, P., Margetts, H., Bastow, S., & Tinkler, J. (2006). Digital era governance: IT corporations, the state, and E-government (p. 304). Oxford University Press, USA.

Earl, S., Carden, F., & Smutylo, T. (2001). Outcome mapping: building learning and reflection into development programmes. International Development Research Centre.

Eisenhardt, M. (1989). Agency Theory: an Assessment and Review. The Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 57–74.

Fitzgerald, A., & Pappalardo, K. (2009). Moving Towards Open Standards. In Unlocking IP (Vol. 6). New South Wales. doi:10.2966/scrip.060209.467

Hadden, D. (2013). Sustainable Public Financial Management – Top 7 Lessons Learned at FISC7. Freebalance Blog. Retrieved from http://www.freebalance.com/blog/?p=3625

Hammell, R., Perricos, C., Branch, D., & Lewis, H. (2011). Unlocking growth: How open data creates new opportunities for the UK. Growth (Lakeland). London, UK.

Heald, D. (2006). Transparency as an instrumental value (Vol. 135, p. 59).

Mcgee, R., & Gaventa, J. (2011). Shifting Power? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives.

Newbery, D., Bently, L., & Pollock, R. (2008). Models of public sector information provision via trading funds.

O’Reilly, T. (2010). Government as a platform. In D. Lathrop & L. Ruma (Eds.), (1st ed.). O’Reilly Media.

Open Institute. (2012). Dr. Bitange Ndemo telling the Kenya Open Data Story on Vimeo. Kenya: Open Institute.

Weinstein, J., & Goldstein, J. (2012). The Benefits of a Big Tent: Opening Up Government in Developing Countries. UCLA Law Review Discourse, 38(2012), 38–48.

 

ICTs and Anti-Corruption: theory and examples

[Summary: draft section from U4 paper on exploring the incentives for adopting ICT innovation in the fight against corruption]

As mentioned a few days ago, I’ve currently got a paper online for comment which I’m working on with Silvana Fumega for the U4 anti-corruption centre. I’ll be blogging each of the sections here, and if you’ve comments on any element of it, please do drop in comments to the Google Doc draft. 

ICTS AND ANTI-CORRUPTION

Corruption involves the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain (Transparency International, 2009). Grönlund has identified a wide range of actions that can be taken with ICTs to try and combat corruption, from service automation and the creation of online and mobile phone based corruption-reporting channels to the online publication of government transparency information (Grönlund, 2010). In the diagram below we offer eight broad categories of ICTs interventions with a potential role in fighting corruption.

U4-Diagram

These different ICT interventions can be divided between transactional reforms and transparency reforms. Transactional reforms seek to reduce the space for corrupt activity by controlling and automating processes inside government, or seek to increase the detection of corruption by increasing the flow of information into existing government oversight and accountability mechanisms. Often these developments are framed as part of e-government. Transparency reforms, by contrast, focus on increasing external rather than internal control over government actors by making the actions of the state and its agents more visible to citizens, civil society and the private sector. In the diagram, categories of ICT intervention and related examples are positioned along a horizontal axis to indicate, in general, whether these initiatives have emerged as ‘citizen led’ or ‘government led’ projects, and along the vertical axis to indicate whether the focus of these activities is primarily on transactional reforms, or transparency. In practice, where any actual ICT intervention falls is a matter as much of the details of implementation as it is to do with the technology, although we find these archetypes useful to highlight the different emphasis and origins of different ICT-based approaches.

Many ICT innovations for transparency and accountability[1] have emerged from within civil society and the private sector, only later adopted by governments. In this paper our focus is specifically upon government adoption of innovations: when the government is taking the lead role in implementing some technology with an anti-corruption potential, albeit a technology that may have originally been developed elsewhere, and where similar instances of such technologies may still be deployed by groups outside government. For example, civil society groups in a number of jurisdictions have deployed the Alaveteli open source software[2] which brokers the filing of Right to Information act requests online, logging and making public requests to, and replies from, government. Some government agencies have responded by building their own direct portals for filing requests, which co-exist with the civil society run Alaveteli implementations. The question of concern for this paper is why government has chosen to adopt the innovation and provide its own RTI portals.

Although there are different theories of change underlying ICT enabled transactional and transparency reforms, the actual technologies involved can be highly inter-related. For example, digitising information about a public service as part of an e-government management process means that there is data about its performance that can be released through a data portal and subjected to public pressure and scrutiny. Without the back-office systems, no digital records are available to open (Thurston, 2012).

The connection between transactional e-government and anti-corruption has only relatively recently been explored. As Bhatnagar notes, most e-government reforms did not begin as anti-corruption measures. Instead, they were adopted for their promise to modernise government and make it more efficient (Bhatnagar, 2003). Bhatnagar explains that “…reduction of corruption opportunities has often been an incidental benefit, rather than an explicit objective of e-government”. A focus on the connection between e-government and transparency is more recent still. Kim et. al. (2009) note that “E-government’s potential to increase transparency and combat corruption in government administration is gaining popularity in communities of e-government practitioners and researchers…”, arguably as a result of increased Internet diffusion meaning that for the first time data and information from within government can, in theory, be made directly accessible to citizens through computers and mobile phones, without passing through intermediaries.

In any use of ICTs for anti-corruption, the technology itself is only one part of the picture. Legal frameworks, organisational processes, leadership and campaign strategies may all be necessary complements of digital tools in order to secure effective change. ICTs for accountability and anti-corruption have developed in a range of different sectors and in response to many different global trends. In the following paragraphs we survey in more depth the emergence and evolution of three kinds of ICTs with anti-corruption potential, looking at both the technologies and the contexts they are embedded within. 

2.1 TRANSPARENCY PORTALS

A transparency portal is a website where government agencies routinely publish defined sets of information. They are often concerned with financial information and might include details of laws and regulations alongside more dynamic information such as government debt, departmental budget allocations and government spending (Solana, 2004). They tend to have a specific focus, and are often backed by a legal mandate, or regulatory requirement, that information is published to them on an ongoing basis. National transparency portals have existed across Latin America since the early 2000s, developed by finance ministries following over 15 years investment in financial management capacity building in the region. Procurement portals have also become common, linked to efforts to make public procurement more efficient, and comply with regulations and good practice on public tenders.

More recently, a number of governments have mandated the creation of local government transparency portals, or the creation of dedicated transparency pages on local government websites. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister requested that governments publish all public spending over £500 on their websites, whilst in the Philippines the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) has pushed the implementation of a Full Disclosure Policy requiring Local Government Units to post a summary of revenues collected, funds received, appropriations and disbursement of funds and procurement–related documents on their websites. The Government of the Philippines has also created an online portal to support local government units in publishing the documents demanded by the policy[3].

In focus: Peru Financial Transparency Portal A transparency portal is a website where government agencies routinely publish defined sets of information. They are often concerned with financial information and might include details of laws and regulations alongside more dynamic information such as government debt, departmental budget allocations and government spending.

Country: Peru

Responsible: Government of Peru- Ministry of Economic and Financial Affairs

Brief description: The Peruvian Government implemented a comprehensive transparency strategy in early 2000. That strategy comprised several initiatives (law on access to financial information, promotion of citizen involvement in transparency processes, among others). The Financial Transparency Portal was launched as one of the elements of that strategy. In that regard, Solanas (2003) suggests that the success of the portal is related to the existence of a comprehensive transparency strategy, in which the portal serves as a central element. The Portal (http://www.mef.gob.pe/) started to operate in 2001 and, at that time, it was praised as the most advanced in the region. Several substantial upgrades to the portal have taken place since the launch.

Current situation:

The portal presents several changes from its early days. In the beginning, the portal provided access to documents on economic and financial information. After more than a decade, it currently publishes datasets on several economic and financial topics, which are provided by each of the agencies in charge of producing or collecting the information. Those datasets are divided in 4 main modules: budget performance monitoring, implementation of investment projects, inquiry on transfers to national, local and regional governments, and domestic and external debt. The portal also includes links to request information, under the Peruvian FOI law, as well as track the status of the request.

Sources:

http://www.politikaperu.org/directorio/ficha.asp?id=355

http://www.egov4dev.org/transparency/case/laportals.shtml

http://www.worldbank.org/socialaccountability_sourcebook/Regional%20database/Case%20 studies/Latin%20America%20&%20Caribbean/TOL-V.pdf#page=71

In general, financial transparency portals have focussed on making government records available: often hosting image file version of printed, signed and scanned documents which mean that anyone wanting to analyse the information from across multiple reports must re-type it into spreadsheets or other software. Although a number of aid and budget transparency portals are linked directly to financial management systems, it is only recently that a small number of portals have started to add features giving direct access to datasets on budget and spending.

Some of the most data-centric transparency portals can be found in the International Aid field, where Aid Transparency Portals have been built on top of Aid Management Platforms used by aid-recipient governments to track their donor-funded projects and budgets. Built with funding and support from International donors, aid transparency portals such as those in Timor Leste and Nepal offer search features across a database of projects. In Nepal, donors have funded the geocoding of project information, allowing a visual map of where funding flows are going to be displayed.

Central to the hypothesis underlying the role of transparency portals in anti-corruption is the idea that citizens and civil society will demand and access information from the portals, and will use it to hold authorities to account (Solana, 2004). In many contexts whilst transparency portals have become well-established, direct demand from citizens and civil society for the information they contain remains, as Alves and Heller put it in relation to Brazil’s fiscal transparency, “frustratingly low” (in Khagram, Fung, & Renzio, 2013). However, transparency portals may also be used by the media and other intermediaries, providing an alternative more indirect theory of change in which coverage of episodes of corruption creates electoral pressures (in functioning democracies at least) against corruption. Though, Power and Taylor’s work on democracy and corruption in Brazil suggests that whilst such mechanisms can have impacts, they are often confounded in practice by other non-corruption related factors that influence voters preferences, and a wide range of contingencies, from electoral cycles to political party structures and electoral math (Power & Taylor, 2011).

2.2 OPEN DATA PORTALS

Where transparency portals focus on the publication of specific kinds of information (financial; aid; government projects etc.), open data portals act as a hub for bringing together diverse datasets published by different government departments.

Open data involves the publication of structured machine-readable data files online with explicit permission granted for anyone to re-use the data in any way. This can be contrasted with examples where transparency portals may publish scanned documents that cannot be loaded into data analysis software, or under copyright restrictions that deny citizens or businesses right to re-use the data.  Open data has risen to prominence over the last five years, spurred on by the 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government from US President Obama (Obama, 2010) which led to the creation of thedata.gov portal, bringing together US government datasets. This built on principles of Open Government Data elaborated in 2007 by a group of activists meeting in Sebastopol California, calling for government to provide data online that was complete, primary (I.e. not edited or interpreted by government before publication), timely, machine-readable, standardised and openly licensed (Malmud & O’Reilly, 2007)

In focus: Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) Open data involves the publication of structured machine-readable data files online with explicit permission granted for anyone to re-use the data in any way. Open data portals act as a hub for bringing together diverse datasets published by different government departments. One of those platforms is: Kenya Open Data Initiative (opendata.go.ke)

Country: Kenya

Responsible: Government of Kenya

Brief description:

Around 2008, projects from Ushahidi to M-PESA put Kenya on the map of ICT innovation. Kenyan government – in particular, then-PS Ndemo of the Ministry of Information and Communications – eager to promote and to encourage that market, started to analyze the idea of publishing government datasets for this community of ICT experts to use.  In that quest, he received support from actors outside of the government such as the World Bank, Google and Ushahidi. Adding to that context, in 2010 a new constitution, recognizing the right to access to information by citizens, was enacted in Kenya (however, a FOI law is still a pending task for the Kenyan government). On July 8 2011, President Mwai Kibaki launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative, making government datasets available to the public through a web portal: opendata.go.ke

Current situation:

Several activist and analyst are starting to write about the lack of updates and updated information of the Kenya Open Data Initiative. The portal has not been updated in several months, and its traffic has slowed down significantly.

Sources:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/75642393/Open-Data-Kenya-Long-Version

http://blog.openingparliament.org/post/63629369190/why-kenyas-open-data-portal-is-failing-and-why-it

http://www.code4kenya.org/?p=469

http://www.ict.go.ke/index.php/hot-topic/416-kenya-open-data

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jul/13/kenya-open-data-initiative

Open data portals have caught on as a policy intervention, with hundreds now online across the world, including an increasing number in developing countries. Brazil, India and Kenya all have national open government data portals, and Edo State in Nigeria recently launched one of the first sub-national open data portals on the continent, expressing a hope that it would “become a platform for improving transparency, catalyzing innovation, and enabling social and economic development”[4]. However, a number of open data portals have already turned out to be short-lived, with the Thai governments open data portal launched[5] in 2011, already defunct and offline at the time of writing.

The data hosted on open data portals varies widely: ranging from information on the locations of public services, and government service performance statistics, to public transport timetables, government budgets, and environmental monitoring data gathered by government research institutions. Not all of this data is useful for anti-corruption work: although the availability of information as structured data makes it far easier to third-parties to analyse a wide range of government datasets not traditionally associated with anti-corruption work to look for patterns and issues that might point to causes for concern. In general, theories of change around open data for anti-corruption assume that skilled intermediaries will access, interpret and work with the datasets published, as portals are generally designed with a technical audience in mind.

Data portals can act as both a catalyst of data publication, providing a focal point that encourages departments to publish data that was not otherwise available, and as an entry-point helping actors outside government to locate datasets that are available. At their best they provide a space for engagement between government and citizens, although few currently incorporate strong community features (De Cindio, 2012).

Recently, transparency and open data efforts have also started to focus on the importance of cross-cutting data standards, that can be used to link up data published in different data portals, and to solicit the publication of sectoral data. Again the aid sector has provided a lead here, with the development the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) data standard, and a data portal collating all the information on aid projects published by donors to this standard[6]. New efforts are seeking to build on experiences from IATI with data standards for contracts information in the Open Contracting initiative, which not only targets information from governments, but also potentially disclosure of contract information in the private sector[7].

2.3 CITIZEN REPORTING CHANNELS

Transparency and open data portals primarily focus on the flow of information from government to citizen. Many efforts to challenge corruption require a flow of information the other way: citizens reporting instances of corruption or providing the information agents of government need to identify and address corrupt behaviour. When reports are filed on paper, or to local officials, it can be hard for central governments to ensure reports are adequately addressed. By contrast, with platforms like the E-Grievance Portal in the Indian State of Orissa[8], when reports are submitted they can be tracked, meaning that where there is will to challenge corruption, citizen reports can be better handled.

Many online channels for citizen reporting have in fact grown up outside of government. Platforms like FixMyStreet in the UK, and the many similar platforms across the world, have been launched by civil society groups frustrated at having to deal with government through seemingly antiquated paper processes. FixMyStreet allows citizens to point out on a map where civil infrastructure requires fixing and forward the citizen reports to the relevant level of government. Government agents are invited to report back to the site when the issue is fixed, giving a trackable and transparent record of government responsiveness. In some areas, governments have responded to these platforms by building their own alternative citizen reporting channels, though often without the transparency of the civil society platforms (reports simply go to the public authority; no open tracking is provided), or, in other cases, by working to integrate the civil society provided solution with their own systems.

In focus: I Paid a BribeMany online channels for citizen reporting have been developed outside of government. One of those platforms is “I Paid a Bribe”, and Indian website aimed at collating bribe’s stories and prices from citizens across the country and then use it to present a snapshot of trends in bribery.

Country: India

Responsible: Janaagraha (www.janaagraha.org) a Bangalore based not-for-profit organizatio

Brief description:

The initiative was first launched on August 15, 2010 (India’s Independence Day), and the website became fully functional a month later. I Paid a Bribe aims to understand the role of bribery in public service delivery by transforming the data collected from the reports into knowledge to inform the government about gaps in public transactions and in strengthening citizen engagement to improve the quality of service delivery. For example, in Bangalore, Bhaskar Rao, the Transport Commissioner for the state of Karnataka, used the data collected on I Paid a Bribe to push through reforms in the motor vehicle department. As a result, and in order to avoid bribes, licenses are now applied for online (Strom, 2012).

Current situation: Trying to reach a greater audience, ipaidabribe.com launched, in mid 2013, “Maine Rishwat Di”, the Hindi language version of the website: http://hindi.ipaidabribe.com/ At the same time, they launched Mobile Apps and SMS services in order to make bribe reporting easier and more accessible to citizens all across India. “I paid a Bribe” has also been replicated with partners in a number of other countries such as Pakistan, Kenya,Morocco and Greece, among others.

Sources: https://www.ipaidabribe.com/about-us

http://southasia.oneworld.net/Files/ict_facilitated_access_to_information_innovations.pdf/at_download/file

http://www.firstpost.com/india/after-reporting-bribes-now-report-rishwats-hindi-version-of-i-paid-a-bribe-launched-1022627.html

http://www.ipaidabribe.com/comment-pieces/“maine-rishwat-di”-hindi-language-version-ipaidabribecom-launched-shankar-mahadevan

Strom, Stephanie (2012) Web Sites Shine Light on Petty Bribery Worldwide. The New York Times. March 6th. Available:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/business/web-sites-shine-light-on-petty-bribery-worldwide.html

References

Bhatnagar, S. (2003). Transparency and Corruption?: Does E-Government Help??, 1–9.

De Cindio, F. (2012, April 4). Guidelines for Designing Deliberative Digital Habitats: Learning from e-Participation for Open Data Initiatives. The Journal of Community Informatics.

Fox, J. (2007). The uncertain relationship between transparency and accountability. Development in Practice, 17(4-5), 663–671. doi:10.1080/09614520701469955

Grönlund, Å. (2010). Using ICT to combat corruption – tools, methods and results. In C. Strand (Ed.), Increasing transparency and fighting corruption through ICT: empowering people and communities (pp. 7–26). SPIDER.

Khagram, S., Fung, A., & Renzio, P. de. (2013). Open Budgets: The Political Economy of Transparency, Participation, and Accountability (p. 264). Brookings Institution Press.

Kim, S., Kim, H. J., & Lee, H. (2009). An institutional analysis of an e-government system for anti-corruption: The case of OPEN. Government Information Quarterly, 26(1), 42–50. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2008.09.002

Malmud, C., & O’Reilly, T. (2007, December). 8 Principles of Open Government Data. Retrieved June 01, 2010, from http://resource.org/8_principles.html

Obama, B. (2010). Memo from President Obama on Transparency and Open Government (in Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Participation in Practice. In D. Lathrop & L. Ruma (Eds.), .

Power, T. J., & Taylor, M. M. (2011). Corruption and Democracy in Brazil: The struggle for accountability. University of Notre Dame.

Solana, M. (2004). Transparency Portals: Delivering public financial information to Citizens in Latin America. In K. Bain, I. Franka Braun, N. John-Abraham, & M. Peñuela (Eds.), Thinking Out Loud V: Innovative Case Studies on Participatory Instruments (pp. 71–80). World Bank.

Thurston, A. C. (2012). Trustworthy Records and Open Data. The Journal of Community Informatics, 8(2).

Transparency International. (2009). The Anti-Corruption Plain Language Guide.


[1] It is important to clarify that transparency does not necessarily lead to accountability. Transparency, understood as the disclosure of information that sheds light on institutional behavior, can be also defined as answerability. However, accountability (or “hard accountability” according to Fox, 2007) not only implies answerability but also the possibility of sanctions (Fox, 2007).

[2] http://www.alaveteli.org/about/where-has-alaveteli-been-installed/

[4] http://data.edostate.gov.ng/ Accessed 10th October 2013

[8] http://cmgcorissa.gov.in

Exploring the incentives for adopting ICT innovation in the fight against corruption

[Summary: Invite for comments on a new draft report exploring incentives for ICT use in the fight against corruption]

Back in January, in response to a blog post by Doug Hadden, I wrote down a few reflections on the incentives for technology for transparency in developing countries. That led to a conversation with Silvana Fumega and the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre about a possible briefing note on the topic, which quickly turned into a full paper – designed to scope out issues for donors and governments to consider in looking at supporting ICT-based anti-corruption efforts, particularly in developing countries. Together with Silvana, I’ve been working on a draft over the last few months – and we’ve just placed a copy online for comments.

I’ll be blogging sections of the draft over the coming week, and you can find the full draft as a Google Document with comments enabled (until 18th November 2013) here.

Here’s the introduction, setting out the focus of the paper:

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) driven initiatives are playing an increasingly central role in discourses of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption. The Internet and mobile phones are widely hailed as powerful tools in the fight against corruption. From mobile phone based corruption crowd-sourcing platforms, to open government data portals providing citizens with access to state datasets, technology-centric interventions are increasingly attracting both political attention and donor funding flows. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) declaration, launched in 2011, commits the 60 OGP member states to “…seizing this moment to strengthen our commitments to promote transparency, fight corruption, empower citizens, and harness the power of new technologies to make government more effective and accountable” (Open Government Partnership, 2011). In an analysis of the first action plans published by OGP members (Global Integrity, 2012), e-government and open data related commitments were markedly the most common made, illustrating the prominence given to ICTs in creating more open and accountable government.

However, the ‘sales pitch’ for governments to adopt ICTs is far broader than their anti-corruption applications, and the fact that a government adopts some particular technology innovation does not necessarily mean that its potential corruption-reducing role will be realised. Criticisms have already been levelled at open data portals that give an initial appearance of government transparency, whilst either omitting any politically sensitive content, or remaining, in practice, inaccessible to the vast majority of the population; and there are numerous examples to be found of crowd-sourcing platforms designed to source citizen feedback on public services, or corruption reports, languishing with just a handful of reports, or no submissions made for months on end (Bailard et. al., 2012; Brown, 2013) Yet, as Strand argues, “while ICT is not a magic bullet when it comes to ensuring greater transparency and less corruption…it has a significant role to play as a tool in a number of important areas” (Strand, 2010). The challenge is neither to suppose that ICTs will inevitably drive positive change, nor to ignore them as merely high-tech distractions. Rather, there is a need to look in detail at the motivations for ICT adoption, and the context in which ICTs are being deployed, seeking to understand the ways in which strategic and sustainable investments can be made that promote the integrity of public services, and the capacity of officials, citizens and other stakeholders to secure effective and accountable governments.

In this issue paper we consider the reasons that may lead governments to adopt anti-corruption related ICT innovations, and we look at the evidence on how the uptake and use of these ICTs may affect their impacts. In doing so, we draw upon literature from a range of fields, including open government, transparency and anti-corruption, e-government and technology for transparency, and we draw in speculation from our observations of the open government field over the last five years. To ground our argument, we offer a range of illustrative case studies that show some of the different kinds of ICT interventions that governments are engaging with.

Comments? Questions? Add your notes on the Google Doc version of this draft here.

References

Bailard, C., Baker, R., Hindman, M., Livingston, S., & Meier, P. (2012). Mapping the Maps: A meta-level analysis of Ushahidi and Crowdmap.

Brown, G. (2013). Why Kenya’s open data portal is failing — and why it can still succeed | Opening Parliament Blog Post. Retrieved from http://blog.openingparliament.org/post/63629369190/why-kenyas-open-data-portal-is-failing-and-why-it

Global Integrity. (2012). So What’s In Those OGP Action Plans, Anyway? Global Integrity Blog. Retrieved from http://globalintegrity.org/blog/whats-in-OGP-action-plans

Open Government Partnership. (2011). Open Government Declaration (pp. 1–2).

Strand, C. (2010). Introduction. In C. Strand (Ed.), Increasing transparency and fighting corruption through ICT: empowering people and communities (Vol. 8). SPIDER. doi:10.1016/0083-6656(66)90013-4