Category Archives: Academic

Exploring participatory public data infrastructure in Plymouth

[Summary: Slides, notes and references from a conference talk in Plymouth]

A few months back I was invited to give a presentation to a joint plenary of the ‘Whose Right to the Smart City‘ and ‘DataAche 2017‘ conferences in Plymouth. Building on some recent conversations with Jonathan Gray, I took the opportunity to try and explore some ideas around the concept of ‘participatory data infrastructure’, linking those loosely with the smart cities theme.

As I fear I might not get time to turn it into a reasonable paper anytime soon, below is a rough transcript of what I planned to say when I presented earlier today. The slides are also below.

For those at the talk, the promised references are found at the end of this post.

Thanks to Satyarupa Shekar for the original invite, Katharine Willis and the Whose Right to the Smart Cities network for stimulating discussions today, and to the many folk whose ideas I’ve tried to draw on below.

Participatory public data infrastructure: open data standards and the turn to transparency

In this talk, my goal is to explore one potential strategy for re-asserting the role of citizens within the smart-city. This strategy harnesses the political narrative of transparency and explores how it can be used to open up a two-way communication channel between citizens, states and private providers.

This not only offers the opportunity to make processes of governance more visible and open to scrutiny, but it also creates a space for debate over the collection, management and use of data within governance, giving citizens an opportunity to shape the data infrastructures that do so much to shape the operation of smart cities, and of modern data-driven policy and it’s implementation.

In particular, I will focus on data standards, or more precisely, open data standards, as a tool that can be deployed by citizens (and, we must acknowledge, by other actors, each with their own, sometimes quite contrary interests), to help shape data infrastructures.

Let me set out the structure of what follows. It will be an exploration in five parts, the first three unpacking the title, and then the fourth looking at a number of case studies, before a final section summing up.

  1. Participatory public data infrastructure
  2. Transparency
  3. Standards
  4. Examples: Money, earth & air
  5. Recap

Part 1: Participatory public data infrastructure

Data infrastructure

infrastructure. /?nfr?str?kt??/ noun. “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” 1

The word infrastructure comes from the latin ‘infra-‘ for below, and structure, meaning structure. It provides the shared set of physical and organizational arrangements upon which everyday life is built.

The notion of infrastructure is central to conventional imaginations of the smart city. Fibre-optic cables, wireless access points, cameras, control systems, and sensors embedded in just about anything, constitute the digital infrastructure that feed into new, more automated, organizational processes. These in turn direct the operation of existing physical infrastructures for transportation, the distribution of water and power, and the provision of city services.

However, between the physical and the organizational lies another form of infrastructure: data and information infrastructure.

(As a sidebar: Although data and information should be treated as analytically distinct concepts, as the boundary between the two concepts is often blurred in the literature, including in discussions of ‘information infrastructures’, and as information is at times used as a super-category including data, I won’t be too strict in my use of the terms in the following).

(That said,) It is by being rendered as structured data that the information from the myriad sensors of the smart city, or the submissions by hundreds of citizens through reporting portals, are turned into management information, and fed into human or machine based decision-making, and back into the actions of actuators within the city.

Seen as a set of physical or digital artifacts, the data infrastructure involves ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) processes, APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), databases and data warehouses, stored queries and dashboards, schema, codelists and standards. Seen as part of a wider ‘data assemblage’ (Kitchin 5) this data infrastructure also involves various processes of data entry and management, of design, analysis and use, as well relationships to other external datasets, systems and standards.

However, if is often very hard to ‘see’ data infrastructure. By their very natures, infrastructures moves into the background, often only ‘visible upon breakdown’ to use Star and Ruhleder’s phrase 2. (For example, you may only really pay attention to the shape and structure of the road network when your planned route is blocked…). It takes a process of “infrastructural inversion” to bring information infrastructures into view 3, deliberately foregrounding the background. I will argue shortly that ‘transparency’ as a policy performs much the same function as ‘breakdown’ in making the contours infrastructure more visible: taking something created with one set of use-cases in mind, and placing it in front of a range of alternative use-cases, such that its affordances and limitations can be more fully scrutinized, and building on that scrutiny, it’s future development shaped. But before we come to that, we need to understand the extent of ‘public data infrastructure’ and the different ways in which we might understand a ‘participatory public data infrastructure’.

Public data infrastructure

There can be public data without a coherent public data infrastructure. In ‘The Responsive City’ Goldsmith and Crawford describe the status quo for many as “The century-old framework of local government – centralized, compartmentalized bureaucracies that jealously guard information…” 4. Datasets may exist, but are disconnected. Extracts of data may even have come to be published online in data portals in response to transparency edicts – but it exists as islands of data, published in different formats and structures, without any attention to interoperability.

Against this background, initiatives to construct public data infrastructure have sought to introduce shared technology, standards and practices that provide access to a more coherent collection of data generated by, and focusing on, the public tasks of government.

For example, in 2012, Denmark launched their ‘Basic Data’ programme, looking to consolidate the management of geographic, address, property and business data across government, and to provide common approaches to data management, update and distribution 6. In the European Union, the INSPIRE Directive and programme has been driving creation of a shared ‘Spatial Data Infrastructure’ since 2007, providing reference frameworks, interoperability rules, and data sharing processes. And more recently, the UK Government has launched a ‘Registers programme’ 8 to create centralized reference lists and identifiers of everything from countries to government departments, framed as part of building governments digital infrastructure. In cities, similar processes of infrastructure building, around shared services, systems and standards are taking place.

The creation of these data infrastructures can clearly have significant benefits for both citizens and government. For example, instead of citizens having to share the same information with multiple services, often in subtly different ways, through a functioning data infrastructure governments can pick up and share information between services, and can provide a more joined up experience of interacting with the state. By sharing common codelists, registers and datasets, agencies can end duplication of effort, and increase their intelligence, drawing more effectively on the data that the state has collected.

However, at the same time, these data infrastructures tend to have a particularly centralizing effect. Whereas a single agency maintaining their own dataset has the freedom to add in data fields, or to restructure their working processes, in order to meet a particular local need – when that data is managed as part of a centralized infrastructure, their ability to influence change in the way data is managed will be constrained both by the technical design and the institutional and funding arrangements of the data infrastructure. A more responsive government is not only about better intelligence at the center, it is also about autonomy at the edges, and this is something that data infrastructures need to be explicitly designed to enable, and something that they are generally not oriented towards.

In “Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State” 10, Jo Guldi uses a powerful case study of the development of the national highways networks to illustrate the way in which the design of infrastructures shapes society, and to explore the forces at play in shaping public infrastructure. When metaled roads first spread out across the country in the eighteenth century, there were debates over whether to use local materials, easy to maintain with local knowledge, or to apply a centralized ‘tarmacadam’ standard to all roads. There were questions of how the network should balance the needs of the majority, with road access for those on the fringes of the Kingdom, and how the infrastructure should be funded. This public infrastructure was highly contested, and the choices made over it’s design had profound social consequences. Jo uses this as an analogy for debates over modern Internet infrastructures, but it can be equally applied to explore questions around an equally intangible public data infrastructure.

If you build roads to connect the largest cities, but leave out a smaller town, the relative access of people in that town to services, trade and wider society is diminished. In the same way, if your data infrastructure lack the categories to describe the needs of a particular population, their needs are less likely to be met. Yet, that town connected might also not want to be connected directly to the road network, and to see it’s uniqueness and character eroded; much like some groups may also want to resist their categorization and integration in the data infrastructure in ways that restrict their ability to self-define and develop autonomous solutions, in the face of centralized data systems that are necessarily reductive.

Alongside this tension between centralization and decentralization in data infrastructures, I also want to draw attention to another important aspect of public data infrastructures. That is the issue of ownership and access. Increasingly public data infrastructures may rely upon stocks and flows of data that are not publicly owned. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Postal Address File, which is the basis of any addressing service, was one of the assets transferred to the private sector when Royal Mail was sold off. The Ordnance Survey retains ownership and management of the Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN), a central part of the data infrastructure for local public service delivery, yet access to this is heavily restricted, and complex agreements govern the ability of even the public sector to use it. Historically, authorities have faced major challenges in relation to ‘derived data’ from Ordnance Survey datasets, where the use of proprietary mapping products as a base layer when generating local records ‘infects’ those local datasets with intellectual property rights of the proprietary dataset, and restricts who they can be shared with. Whilst open data advocacy has secured substantially increased access to many publicly owned datasets in recent years, when the datasets the state is using are privately owned in the first place, and only licensed to the state, the potential scope for public re-use and scrutiny of the data, and scrutiny of the policy made on the basis of it, is substantially limited.

In the case of smart cities, I suspect this concern is likely to be particularly significant. Take transit data for example: in 2015 Boston, Massachusetts did a deal with Uber to allow access to data from the data-rich transportation firm to support urban planning and to identify approaches to regulation. Whilst the data shared reveals something of travel times, the limited granularity rendered it practically useless for planning purposes, and Boston turned to senate regulations to try and secure improved data 9. Yet, even if the city does get improved access to data about movements via Uber and Lyft in the city – the ability of citizens to get involved in the conversations about policy from that data may be substantially limited by continued access restrictions on the data.

With the Smart City model often involving the introduction of privately owned sensors networks and processes, the extent to which the ‘data infrastructure for public tasks ceases to have the properties that we will shortly see are essential to a ‘participatory public data infrastructure’ is a question worth paying attention to.

Participatory public data infrastructure

I will posit then that the grown of public data infrastructures is almost inevitable. But the shape they take is not. I want, in particular then, to examine what it would mean to have a participatory public data infrastructure.

I owe the concept of a ‘participatory public data infrastructure’ in particular to Jonathan Gray ([11], [12], [13]), who has, across a number of collaborative projects, sought to unpack questions of how data is collected and structured, as well as released as open data. In thinking about the participation of citizens in public data, we might look at three aspects:

  1. Participation in data use
  2. Participation in data production
  3. Participation in data design

And, seeing these as different in kind, rather than different in degree, we might for each one deploy Arnstein’s ladder of participation [14] as an analytical tool, to understand that the extent of participation can range from tokenism through to full shared decision making. As for all participation projects, we must also ask the vitally important question of ‘who is participating?’.

At the bottom-level ‘non-participation’ runs of Arnstein’s ladder we could see a data infrastructure that captures data ‘about’ citizens, without their active consent or involvement, that excludes them from access to the data itself, and then uses the data to set rules, ‘deliver’ services, and enact policies over which citizens have no influence in either their design of delivery. The citizen is treated as an object, not an agent, within the data infrastructure. For some citizens contemporary experience, and in some smart city visions, this description might not be far from a direct fit.

By contrast, when citizens have participation in the use of a data infrastructure they are able to make use of public data to engage in both service delivery and policy influence. This has been where much of the early civic open data movement placed their focus, drawing on ideas of co-production, and government-as-a-platform, to enable partnerships or citizen-controlled initiatives, using data to develop innovative solutions to local issues. In a more political sense, participation in data use can remove information inequality between policy makers and the subjects of that policy, equalizing at least some of the power dynamic when it comes to debating policy. If the ‘facts’ of population distribution and movement, electricity use, water connections, sanitation services and funding availability are shared, such that policy maker and citizen are working from the same data, then the data infrastructure can act as an enabler of more meaningful participation.

In my experience though, the more common outcome when engaging diverse groups in the use of data, is not an immediate shared analysis – but instead of a lot of discussion of gaps and issues in the data itself. In some cases, the way data is being used might be uncontested, but the input might turn out to be misrepresenting the lived reality of citizens. This takes us to the second area of participation: the ability to not jusT take from a dataset, but also to participate in dataset production. Simply having data collected from citizens does not make a data infrastructure participatory. That sensors tracked my movement around an urban area, does not make me an active participant in collecting data. But by contrast, when citizens come together to collect new datasets, such as the water and air quality datasets generated by sensors from Public Lab 15, and are able to feed this into the shared corpus of data used by the state, there is much more genuine participation taking place. Similarly, the use of voluntary contributed data on Open Street Map, or submissions to issue-tracking platforms like FixMyStreet, constitute a degree of participation in producing a public data infrastructure when the state also participates in use of those platforms.

It is worth noting, however, that most participatory citizen data projects, whether concerned with data use of production, are both patchy in their coverage, and hard to sustain. They tend to offer an add-on to the public data infrastructure, but to leave the core substantially untouched, not least because of the significant biases that can occur due to inequalities of time, hardware and skills to be able to contribute and take part.

If then we want to explore participation that can have a sustainable impact on policy, we need to look at shaping the core public data infrastructure itself – looking at the existing data collection activities that create it, and exploring whether or not the data collected, and how it is encoded, serves the broad public interest, and allows the maximum range of democratic freedom in policy making and implementation. This is where we can look at a participatory data infrastructure as one that enables citizens (and groups working on their behalf) to engage in discussions over data design.

The idea that communities, and citizens, should be involved in the design of infrastructures is not a new one. In fact, the history of public statistics and data owes a lot to voluntary social reform focused on health and social welfare collecting social survey data in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to influence policy, and then advocating for government to take up ongoing data collection. The design of the census and other government surveys have long been sources of political contention. Yet, with the vast expansion of connected data infrastructures, which rapidly become embedded, brittle and hard to change, we are facing a particular moment at which increased attention is needed to the participatory shaping of public data infrastructures, and to considering the consequences of seemingly technical choices on our societies in the future.

Ribes and Baker [16], in writing about the participation of social scientists in shaping research data infrastructures draw attention to the aspect of timing: highlighting the limited window during which an infrastructure may be flexible enough to allow substantial insights from social science to be integrated into its development. My central argument is that transparency, and the move towards open data, offers a key window within which to shape data infrastructures.

Part 2: Transparency

transparency /tran?spar(?)nsi/ noun “the quality of being done in an open way without secrets” 21

Advocacy for open data has many distinct roots: not only in transparency. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that it is the confluence of many different agendas around a limited consensus point in the Open Definition that allowed the breakthrough of an open data movement late in the last decade [17] [18]. However, the normative idea of transparency plays an important roles in questions of access to public data. It was a central part of the framing of Obama’s famous ‘Open Government Directive’ in 2009 20, and transparency was core to the rhetoric around the launch of data.gov.uk in the wake of a major political expenses scandal.

Transparency is tightly coupled with the concept of accountability. When we talk about government transparency, it is generally as part of government giving account for it’s actions: whether to individuals, or to the population at large via the third and fourth estates. To give effective account means it can’t just make claims, it has to substantiate them. Transparency is a tool allowing citizens to exercise control over their governments.

Sweden’s Freedom of the Press law from 1766 were the first to establish a legal right to information, but it was a slow burn until the middle of the last century, when ‘right to know’ statutes started to gather pace such that over 100 countries now have Right to Information laws in place. Increasingly, these laws recognize that transparency requires not only access to documents, but also access to datasets.

It is also worth noting that transparency has become an important regulatory tool of government: where government may demand transparency off others. As Fung et. al argue in ‘Full Disclosure’, governments have turned to targeted transparency as a way of requiring that certain information (including from the private sector) is placed in the public domain, with the goal of disciplining markets or influencing the operation of marketized public services, by improving the availability of information upon which citizens will make choices [19].

The most important thing to note here is that demands for transparency are often not just about ‘opening up’ a dataset that already exists – but ultimately are about developing an account of some aspect of public policy. To create this account might require data to be connected up from different silos, and may required the creation of new data infrastructures.

This is where standards enter the story.

Part 3: Standards

standard /?stand?d/ noun

something used as a measure, norm, or model in [comparative] evaluations.

The first thing I want to note about ‘standards’ is that the term is used in very different ways by different communities of practice. For a technical community, the idea of a data standard more-or-less relates to a technical specification or even schema, by which the exact way that certain information should be represented as data is set out in minute detail. To assess if data ‘meets’ the standard is a question of how the data is presented. For a policy audience, talk of data standards may be interpreted much more as a question of collection and disclosure norms. To assess if data meets the standard here is more a question of what data is presented. In practice, these aspects interrelate. With anything more than a few records, to assess ‘what’ has been disclosed requires processing data, and that requires it to be modeled according to some reasonable specification.

The second thing I want to note about standards is that they are highly interconnected. If we agree upon a standard for the disclosure of government budget information, for example, then in order to produce data to meet that standard, government may need to check that a whole range of internal systems are generating data in accordance with the standard. The standard for disclosure that sits on the boundary of a public data infrastructure can have a significant influence on other parts of that infrastructure, or its operation can be frustrated when other parts of the infrastructure can’t produce the data it demands.

The third thing to note is that a standard is only really a standard when it has multiple users. In fact, the greater the community of users, the stronger, in effect, the standard is.

So – with these points in mind, let’s look at how a turn to transparency and open data has created both pressure for application of data standards, and an opening for participatory shaping of data infrastructures.

One of the early rallying cries of the open data movement was ‘Raw Data Now’. Yet, it turns out raw data, as a set of database dumps of selected tables from the silo datasets of the state does not always produce effective transparency. What it does do, however, is create the start of a conversation between citizen, private sector and state over the nature of the data collected, held and shared.

Take for example this export from a council’s financial system in response to a central government policy calling for transparency on spend over £500.

Service Area BVA Cop ServDiv Code Type Code Date Transaction No. Amount Revenue / Capital Supplier
Balance Sheet 900551 Insurance Claims Payment (Ext) 47731 31.12.2010 1900629404 50,000.00 Revenue Zurich Insurance Co
Balance Sheet 900551 Insurance Claims Payment (Ext) 47731 01.12.2010 1900629402 50,000.00 Revenue Zurich Insurance Co
Balance Sheet 933032 Other income 82700 01.12.2010 1900632614 -3,072.58 Revenue Unison Collection Account
Balance Sheet 934002 Transfer Values paid to other schemes 11650 02.12.2010 1900633491 4,053.21 Revenue NHS Pensions Scheme Account
Balance Sheet 900601 Insurance Claims Payment (Ext) 47731 06.12.2010 1900634912 1,130.54 Revenue Shires (Gloucester) Ltd
Balance Sheet 900652 Insurance Claims Payment (Int) 47732 06.12.2010 1900634911 1,709.09 Revenue Bluecoat C Of E Primary School
Balance Sheet 900652 Insurance Claims Payment (Int) 47732 10.12.2010 1900637635 1,122.00 Revenue Christ College Cheltenham

It comes from data generated for one purpose (the council’s internal financial management), now being made available for another purpose (external accountability), but that might also be useful for a range of further purposes (companies looking to understand business opportunities; other council’s looking to benchmark their spending, and so-on). Stripped of its context as part of internal financial systems, the column headings make less sense: what is BVA COP? Is the date the date of invoice? Or of payment? What does each ServDiv Code relate to? The first role of any standardization is often to document what the data means: and in doing so, to surface unstated assumptions.

But standardization also plays a role in allowing the emerging use cases for a dataset to be realized. For example, when data columns are aligned comparison across council spending is facilitated. Private firms interested in providing such comparison services may also have a strong interest in seeing each of the authorities providing data doing so to a common standard, to lower their costs of integrating data from each new source.

If standards are just developed as the means of exchanging data between government and private sector re-users of the data, the opportunities for constructing a participatory data infrastructure are slim. But when standards are explored as part of the transparency agenda, and as part of defining both the what and the how of public disclosure, such opportunities are much richer.

When budget and spend open data became available in Sao Paulo in Brazil, a research group at University of Sao Paulo, led by Gisele Craviero, explored how to make this data more accessible to citizens at a local level. They found that by geocoding expenditure, and color coding based on planned, committed and settled funds, they could turn the data from impenetrable tables into information that citizens could engage with. More importantly, they argue that in engaging with government around the value of geocoded data “moving towards open data can lead to changes in these underlying and hidden process [of government data creation], leading to shifts in the way government handles its own data” [22]

The important act here was to recognize open data-enabled transparency not just as a one-way communication from government to citizens, but as an invitation for dialog about the operation of the public data infrastructure, and an opportunity to get involved – explaining that, if government took more care to geocode transactions in its own systems, it would not have to wait for citizens to participate in data use and to expend the substantial labour on manually geocoding some small amount of spending, but instead the opportunity for better geographic analysis of spending would become available much more readily inside and outside the state.

I want to give three brief examples of where the development, or not, of standards is playing a role in creating more participatory data infrastructures, and in the process to draw out a couple of other important aspects of thinking about transparency and standardization as part of the strategic toolkit for asserting citizen rights in the context of smart cities.

Part 4: Examples

Contracts

My first example looks at contracts for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an area I’ve been working on in depth over the last few years, as part of the team creating and maintaining the Open Contracting Data Standard. But, more importantly, its an under-explored aspect of the smart city itself. For most cities, how transparent is the web of contracts that establishes the interaction between public and private players? Can you easily find the tenders and awards for each component of the new city infrastructure? Can you see the terms of the contracts and easily read-up on who owns and controls each aspect of emerging public data infrastructure? All too often the answer to these questions is no. Yet, when it comes to procurement, the idea of transparency in contracting is generally well established, and global guidance on Public Private Partnerships highlights transparency of both process and contract documents as an essential component of good governance.

The Open Contracting Data Standard emerged in 2014 as a technical specification to give form to a set of principles on contracting disclosure. It was developed through a year-long process of research, going back and forth between a focus on ‘data supply’ and understanding the data that government systems are able to produce on their contracting, and ‘data demand’, identifying a wide range of user groups for this data, and seeking to align the content and structure of the standard with their needs. This resulted in a standard that provides a framework for publication of detailed information at each stage of a contracting process, from planning, through tender, award and signed contract, right through to final spending and delivery.

Meeting this standard in full is quite demanding for authorities. Many lack existing data infrastructures that provide common identifiers across the whole contracting process, and so adopting OCDS for data disclosure may involve some elements of update to internal systems and processes. The transparency standard has an inwards effect, shaping not only the data published, but the data managed. In supporting implementation of OCDS, we’ve also found that the process of working through the structured publication of data often reveals as yet unrecognized data quality issues in internal systems, and issues of compliance with existing procurement policies.

Now, two of the critiques that might be offered of standards is that, as highly technical objects their development is only open to participation from a limited set of people, and that in setting out a uniform approach to data publication, they are a further tool of centralization. Both these are serious issues.

In the Open Contracting Data Standard we’ve sought to navigate them by working hard on having an open governance process for the standard itself, and using a range of strategies to engagement people in shaping the standard, including workshops, webinars, peer-review processes and presenting the standard in a range of more accessible formats. We’re also developing an implementation and extensions model that encourages local debate over exactly which elements of the overall framework should be prioritized for publication, whilst highlighting the fields of data that are needed in order to realize particular use-cases.

This highlights an important point: standards like OCDS are more than the technical spec. There is a whole process of support, community building, data quality assurance and feedback going on to encourage data interoperability, and to support localization of the standard to meet particular needs.

When standards create the space, then other aspects of a participatory data infrastructure are also enabled and facilitated. A reliable flow of data on pipeline contracts may allow citizens to scrutinize the potential terms of tenders for smart city infrastructure before contracts are awarded and signed, and an infrastructure with the right feedback mechanisms could ensure, for example, that performance-based payments to providers are properly influenced by independent citizen input.

The thesis here is one of breadth and depth. A participatory developed open standard allows a relatively small-investment intervention to shape a broad section of public data infrastructure, influencing the internal practice of government and establishing the conditions for more ad-hoc deep-dive interventions, that allow citizens to use that data to pursue particular projects of change.

Earth

The second example explores this in the context of land. Who owns the smart city?

The Open Data Index and Open Data Barometer studies of global open data availability have had a ‘Land Ownership’ category for a number of years, and there is a general principle that land ownership information should, to some extent, be public. However, exactly what should be published is a tricky question. An over-simplified schema might ignore the complex realities of land rights, trying to reduce a set of overlapping claims to a plot number and owner. By contrast, the narrative accounts of ownership that often exist in the documentary record may be to complex to render as data [24]. In working on a refined Open Data Index category, the Cadasta Foundation 23 noted that opening up property owners names in the context of a stable country with functioning rule of law “has very different risks and implications than in a country with less formal documentation, or where dispossession, kidnapping, and or death are real and pervasive issues” 23.

The point here is that a participatory process around the standards for transparency may not, from the citizen perspective, always drive at more disclosure, but that at times, standards may also need to protect the ‘strategic invisibility’ of marginalized groups [25]. In the United Kingdom, although individual titles can be bought for £3 from the Land Registry, no public dataset of title-holders is available. However, there are moves in place to establish a public dataset of land owned by private firms, or foreign owners, coming in part out of an anti-corruption agenda. This fits with the idea that, as Sunil Abraham puts it, “privacy should be inversely proportional to power” 26.

Central property registers are not the only source of data relevant to the smart city. Public authorities often have their own data on public assets. A public conversation on the standards needed to describe this land, and share information about it, is arguable overdue. Again looking at the UK experience, the government recently consulted on requiring authorities to record all information on their land assets through the Property Information Management system (ePIMS): centralizing information on public property assets, but doing so against a reductive schema that serves central government interests. In the consultation on this I argued that, by contrast, we need an approach based on a common standard for describing public land, but that allows local areas the freedom to augment a core schema with other information relevant to local policy debates.

Air

From the earth, let us turn very briefly to the air. Air pollution is a massive issue, causing millions on premature deaths worldwide every year. It is an issue that is particularly acute in urban areas. Yet, as the Open Data Institute note “we are still struggling to ‘see’ air pollution in our everyday lives” 27. They report the case of decision making on a new runway at Heathrow Airport, where policy makers were presented with data from just 14 NO2 sensors. By contrast, a network of citizen sensors provided much more granular information, and information from citizen’s gardens and households, offering a different account from those official sensors by roads or in fields.

Mapping the data from official government air quality sensors reveals just how limited their coverage is: and backs up the ODI’s calls for a collaborative, or participatory, data infrastructure. In a 2016 blog post, Jamie Fawcett describes how:

“Our current data infrastructure for air quality is fragmented. Projects each have their own goals and ambitions. Their sensor networks and data feeds often sit in silos, separated by technical choices, organizational ambition and disputes over data quality and sensor placement. The concerns might be valid, but they stand in the way of their common purpose, their common goals.”

He concludes “We need to commit to providing real-time open data using open standards.”

This is a call for transparency by both public and private actors: agreeing to allow re-use of their data, and rendering it comparable through common standards. The design of such standards will need to carefully balance public and private interests, and to work out how the costs of making data comparable will fall between data publishers and users.

Part 5: Recap

So, to briefly recap:

  • I want to draw attention to the data infrastructures of the smart city and the modern state;
  • I’ve suggested that open data and transparency can be powerful tools in performing the kind of infrastructural inversion that brings the context and history of datasets into view and opens them up to scrutiny;
  • I’ve furthermore argued that transparency policy opens up an opportunity for a two-way dialogue about public data infrastructures, and for citizen participation not only in the use and production of data, but also in setting standards for data disclosure;
  • I’ve then highlighted how standards for disclosure don’t just shape the data that enters the public domain, but they also have an upwards impact on the shape of the public data infrastructure itself.

Taken together, this is a call for more focus on the structure and standardization of data, and more work on exploring the current potential of standardization as a site of participation, and an enabler of citizen participation in future.

If you are looking for a more practical set of takeaways that flow from all this, let me offer a set of questions that can be asked of any smart cities project, or indeed, any data-rich process of governance:

  • (1) What information is pro-actively published, or can be demanded, as a result of transparency and right to information policies?
  • (2) What does the structure of the data reveal about the process/project it relates to?
  • (3) What standards might be used to publish this data?
  • (4) Do these standards provide the data I, or other citizens, need to be empowered in relevant to this process/project?
  • (5) Are these open standards? Whose needs were they designed to serve?
  • (6) Can I influence these standards? Can I afford not to?

References

1: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=define%3Ainfrastructure, accessed 17th August 2017

2: Star, S., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111–134.

3: Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. The MIT Press.

4: Goldsmith, S., & Crawford, S. (2014). The responsive city. Jossey-Bass.

5: Kitchin, R. (2014). The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. SAGE Publications.

6: The Danish Government. (2012). Good Basic Data for Everyone – a Driver for Growth and Efficiency, (October 2012)

7: Bartha, G., & Kocsis, S. (2011). Standardization of Geographic Data: The European INSPIRE Directive. European Journal of Geography, 22, 79–89.

10: Guldi, J. (2012). Roads to power: Britain invents the infrastructure state.

[11]: Gray, J., & Davies, T. (2015). Fighting Phantom Firms in the UK : From Opening Up Datasets to Reshaping Data Infrastructures?

[12]: Gray, J., & Tommaso Venturini. (2015). Rethinking the Politics of Public Information: From Opening Up Datasets to Recomposing Data Infrastructures?

[13]: Gray, J. (2015). DEMOCRATISING THE DATA REVOLUTION: A Discussion Paper

[14]: Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journalof the American Institute of Planners, 34(5), 216–224.

[16]: Ribes, D., & Baker, K. (2007). Modes of social science engagement in community infrastructure design. Proceedings of the 3rd Communities and Technologies Conference, C and T 2007, 107–130.

[17]: Davies, T. (2010, September 29). Open data, democracy and public sector reform: A look at open government data use from data.gov.uk.

[18]: Davies, T. (2014). Open Data Policies and Practice: An International Comparison.

[19]: Fung, A., Graham, M., & Weil, D. (2007). Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.

[22]: Craveiro, G. S., Machado, J. A. S., Martano, A. M. R., & Souza, T. J. (2014). Exploring the Impact of Web Publishing Budgetary Information at the Sub-National Level in Brazil.

[24]: Hetherington, K. (2011). Guerrilla auditors: the politics of transparency in neoliberal Paraguay. London: Duke University Press.

[25]: Scott, J. C. (1987). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.

Now open access: The Daily Shaping of State Transparency: Standards, Machine-Readability and the Configuration of Open Government Data Policies

[Summary: co-authored #opendata paper now available open access]

A while back, Sam Goeta kindly invited me to collaborate with him on a paper around open data standards, and the work involved in the back rooms of open data. The paper was finally published in a special issue of Science and Technology Studies on Knowledge Infrastructures late last year, and the open access version is now available.

Abstract

“While many governments are now committed to release Open Government Data under non-proprietary standardized formats, less attention has been given to the actual consequences of these standards for knowledge workers. Unpacking the history of three open data standards (CSV, GTFS, IATI), this paper shows what is actually happening when these standards are enacted in the work practices of bureaucracies. It is built on participant-observer enquiry and interviews focussed on the back rooms of open data, and looking specifically at the invisible work necessary to construct open datasets. It shows that the adoption of open standards is increasingly becoming an indicator of the advancement of open data programmes. Enacting open standards involves much more than simple technical operations, it operates a quiet and localised transformation of bureaucracies, in which the decisions of data workers have substantive consequences for how the open government data and transparency agendas are performed.”

2015 Open Data Research Symposium – Ottawa

There are a few days left to submit abstracts for the 2015 Open Data Research Symposium due to take place alongside 3rd International Open Government Data Conference in Ottawa, on May 27th 2015.

Registration is also now open for participants as well as presenters.

Call for Abstracts: (Deadline 28th Feb 2015; submission portal)

As open data becomes firmly cemented in the policy mainstream, there is a pressing need to dig deeper into the dynamics of how open data operates in practice, and the theoretical roots of open data activities. Researchers across the world have been looking at these issues, and this workshop offers an opportunity to bring together and have shared dialogue around completed studies and work-in-progress.

Submissions are invited on themes including:

  • Theoretical framing of open data as a concept and a movement;
  • Use and impacts of open data in specific countries or specific sectors, including, but not limited to: government agencies, cities, rural areas, legislatures, judiciaries, and the domains of health, education, transport, finance, environment, and energy;
  • The making, implementation and institutionalisation of open data policy;
  • Capacity building for wider availability and use of open data;
  • Conceptualising open data ecosystems and intermediaries;
  • Entrepreneurial usage and open data economies in developing countries;
  • Linkages between transparency, freedom of information and open data communities;
  • Measurement of open data policy and practices;
  • Critical challenges for open data: privacy, exclusion and abuse;
  • Situating open data in global governance and developmental context;
  • Development and adoption of technical standards for open data;

Submissions are invited from all disciplines, though with an emphasis on empirical social research. PhD students, independent and early career researchers are particularly encouraged to submit abstracts. Panels will provide an opportunity to share completed or in-progress research and receive constructive feedback.

Submission details

Extended abstracts, in French, English, Spanish or Portuguese, of up to two pages, detailing the question addressed by the research, methods employed and findings should be submitted by February 28th 2015. Notifications will be provided by March 31st. Full papers will be due by May 1st. 

Registration for the symposium will open shortly after registration for the main International Open Government Data Conference.

Abstracts should be submitted via Easy Chair

Paper format

Authors of accepted abstracts will be invited to submit full papers. These should be a maximum of 20 pages single spaced, exclusive of bibliography and appendixes. As an interdisciplinary and international workshop we welcome papers in a variety of formats and languages: French, English, Spanish and Portuguese. However, abstracts and paper presentations will need to be given in English. 

Full papers should be provided in .odt, .doc, or .rtf or as .html. Where relevant, we encourage authors to also share in a repository, and link to, data collected as part of their research. 

We are working to identify a journal special issue or other opportunity for publication of selected papers.

Contact

Contact savita.bailur@webfoundation.org or tim.davies@soton.ac.uk for more details.

Programme committee

About the Open Data Research Network

The Open Data Research Network was established in 2012 as part of the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project. It maintains an active newsletter, website and LinkedIn group, providing a space for researchers, policy makers and practitioners to interact. 

This workshop will also include an opportunity to find out how to get involved in the Network as it transitions to a future model, open to new members and partners, and with a new governance structure. 

Unpacking open data: power, politics and the influence of infrastructures

[Summary: recording of Berkman Centre Lunch Talk on open data]

Much belatedly, below you will find the video from the Berkman Centre Talk I gave late last year on ‘Unpacking open data: power, politics and the influence of infrastructures

You can find a live-blog of the talk from Matt Stempeck and Erhardt Graff over on the MIT Media Lab blog, and Willow Brugh drew the fantastic visual record of themes in the talk shown below:

Unpacking_open_data

The slides are also up on Slideshare here.

I’m now in the midst of trying to make more sense of the themes in this talk whilst in the writing up stage for my PhD… and much of the feedback I had from the talk has been incredibly valuable in that – so comments are always welcome.

Upcoming talks: October/November 2014

[Summary: quick links to upcoming talks]

The next month is shaping up to be a busy one with project deadlines, and lots of interesting opportunities to share reflections on research projects from the last year. Below are details of a few talks and activities I’m involved in over the coming weeks:

29th October 2014: ICT for Transparency, Accountability and Anti-Corruption: Incentives and Key Features for Implementation (Webinar)

Tomorrow (29th October) at 2pm BST (10am EST) I’ll be sharing an outline of the paper I wrote with Silvana Fumega that was published earlier this year, questioning how the motivations of government in adopting open government ICTs may affect the way those ICTs are implemented and the effects they can have, as well as looking at the different factors that shape adoption and implemention of these technologies. The session will also include Savita Bailur, sharing brand new research into the mySociety Alavateli platform for FOI requests, and it’s use around the world.

The session will consist of short presentations, followed by an opportunity for discussion.

Registration to take part is open here.

25th November 2014: Unpacking open data: power, politics and the influence of infrastructures

I’ll be back at the Berkman Center to talk about some of my research from the last year, and to explore some of the new directions my work on open data is taking. Here’s the blurb for the talk:

“Countries, states & cities across the globe are embracing the idea of ‘open data’: establishing platforms, portals and projects to share government managed data online for re-use. Yet, right now, the anticipated civic impacts of open data rarely materialise, and the gap between the promise and the reality of open data remains wide. This talk, drawing on a series of empirical studies of open data around the world, will question the ways in which changing regimes around data can reconfigure power and politics, and will explore the limits of current practice. It will consider opportunities to re-imagine the open data project, not merely as one of placing datasets online, but as one that can positively reshape the knowledge infrastructures of civic life.”

The talk will be webcast, but if you happen to be in Cambridge, MA, you can also join in person at the Berkman Center over lunch. More details and in-person sign-up is here.

November 4th 2014: Sheffield iSchool Seminar

I’ll be joining Jo Bates and Danny Antrobus at the Sheffield iSchool for a seminar on open data theory of practice. Taking place at 1pm. More info should be up soon on the iSchool blog, and the blurb of what I’ll be talking on is below:

“Open data had rapidly become a global phenomena, driven both both top-down policy transfer, and bottom-up demands for greater access to vital information. Drawing on research from the Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project, which has supported case-study research into open data use and impacts in 12 countries across the global South, this presentation will explore how far the models for open government data that are promoted through global institutions are aligned with the needs and realities of different communities around the world. By moving beyond a ‘narrow model’ of open data, focused on datasets, portals and apps, a richer picture of both the potential and the pitfalls of particular approaches to opening up data can be uncovered. “

November 18th 2014: Launch of the Open Contracting Data Standard

At the Open Government Partnership regional meeting in Costa Rica, I’ll be joining with the team who have been working on prototyping a data standard for public contracting to see the public release of the standard launched, and I hope to engage in conversation about how to keep developing it further in open and collaborative ways.

New Paper – Mixed incentives: Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption

7353-U4Issue-2014-03-04-WEB

[Summary: critical questions to ask when planning, funding or working on ICTs for transparency and accountability]

Last year I posted some drafts of a paper I’ve been writing with Silvana Fumega at the invitation of the U4 Anti-Corruption Center, looking at the incentives for, and dynamics of, adoption of ICTs as anti-corruption tools. Last week the final paper was published in the U4 Issue series, and you can find it for download here.

In the final iteration of the paper we have sought to capture the core of the analysis in the form of a series of critical questions that funders, planners and implementers of anti-corruption ICTs can ask. These are included in the executive summary below, and elaborated more in the full paper.

Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption – Executive Summary

Initiatives facilitated by information and communication technology (ICT) are playing an increasingly central role in discourses of transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption. Both advocacy and funding are being mobilised to encourage governments to adopt new technologies aimed at combating corruption. Advocates and funders need to ask critical questions about how innovations from one setting might be transferred to another, assessing how ICTs affect the flow of information, how incentives for their adoption shape implementation, and how citizen engagement and the local context affect the potential impacts of their use.

ICTs can be applied to anti-corruption efforts in many different ways. These technologies change the flow of information between governments and citizens, as well as between different actors within governments and within civil society. E?government ICTs often seek to address corruption by automating processes and restricting discretion of officials. However, many contemporary uses of ICTs place more emphasis on the concept of transparency as a key mechanism to address corruption. Here, a distinction can be made between technologies that support “upward transparency,” where the state gains greater ability to observe and hear from its citizens, or higher-up actors in the state gain greater ability to observe their subordinates, and “downward transparency,” in which “the ‘ruled’ can observe the conduct, behaviour, and/or ‘results’ of their ‘rulers’” (Heald 2006). Streamlined systems that citizens can use to report issues to government fall into the former category, while transparency portals and open data portals are examples of the latter. Transparency alone can only be a starting point for addressing corruption, however: change requires individuals, groups, and institutions who can access and respond to the information.

In any particular application of technology with anti-corruption potential, it is important to ask:

  • What is the direction of the information flow: from whom and to whom?
  • Who controls the flow of information, and at what stages?
  • Who needs to act on the information in order to address corruption?

Different incentives can drive government adoption of ICTs. The current wave of interest in ICT for anti-corruption is relatively new, and limited evidence exists to quantify the benefits that particular technologies can bring in a given context. However, this is not limiting enthusiasm for the idea that governments, particularly developing country governments, can adopt new technologies as part of open government and anti-corruption efforts. Many technologies are “sold” on the basis of multiple promised benefits, and governments respond to a range of different incentives. For example, governments may use ICTs to:

  • Improve information flow and government efficiency, creating more responsive public institutions, supporting coordination.
  • Provide open access to data to enable innovation and economic growth, responding to claims about the economic value of open data and its role as a resource for private enterprise.
  • Address principal-agent problems, allowing progressive and reformist actors within the state to better manage and regulate other parts of the state by detecting and addressing corruption through upward and downward transparency.
  • Respond to international pressure, following the trends in global conversations and pressure from donors and businesses, as well as the availability of funding for pilots and projects.
  • Respond to bottom-up pressure, both from established civil society and from an emerging global network of technology-focussed civil society actors. Governments may do this either as genuine engagement or to “domesticate” what might otherwise be seen as disruptive innovations.

In supporting ICTs for anti-corruption, advocates and donors should consider several key questions related to incentives:

  • What are the stated motivations of government for engaging with this ICT?
  • What other incentives and motivations may be underlying interest in this ICT?
  • Which incentives are strongest? Are any of the incentives in conflict?
  • Which incentives are important to securing anti-corruption outcomes from this ICT?
  • Who may be motivated to oppose or inhibit the anti-corruption applications of this ICT?

The impact of ICTs for anti-corruption is shaped by citizen engagement in a local context. Whether aimed at upward or downward transparency, the successful anti-corruption application of an ICT relies upon citizen engagement. Many factors affect which citizens can engage through technology to share reports with government or act upon information provided by government. ICTs that worked in one context might not achieve the same results in a different setting (McGee and Gaventa 2010). The following questions draw attention to key aspects of context:

  • Who has access to the relevant technologies? What barriers of connectivity, literacy, language, or culture might prevent a certain part of the population from engaging with an ICT innovation?
  • What alternative channels (SMS, offline outreach) might be required to increase the reach of this innovation?
  • How will the initiative close the feedback loop? Will citizens see visible outcomes over the short or long term that build rather than undermine trust?
  • Who are the potential intermediary groups and centralised users for ICTs that provide upward or downward transparency? Are both technical and social intermediaries present? Are they able to work together?

Towards sustainable and effective anti-corruption use of ICTs. As Strand (2010) 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.” Although taking advantage of the multiple potential benefits of open data, transparency portals, or digitised communication with government can make it easier to start a project, funders and advocates should consider the incentives for ICT adoption and their likely impact on how the technology will be applied in practice. Each of the questions above is important to understanding the role a particular technology might play and the factors that affect how it is implemented and utilised in a particular country.

 

You can read the full paper here.

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