Revealing Transparency and its relation to Community Empowerment

Writing this on the bus ride up to Long Island for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative “Bridging Session”. Some of my favorite geeks will be there, pressure cooking over three days with groups doing hard work on transparency in the field of natural resources. This intensive workshop format is my favorite way to break new ground. The OPEN PLAN in Nottingham in 2005 led to my start with OpenStreetMap, and Infoactivism Camp in 2009 in Bangalore led in a way to Map Kibera and GroundTruth Initiative, and continues to be a watershed experience for me. Gunner facilitated in Bangalore, and is the ringleader this week, so I have good hopes this event will open up entirely new directions.

Now, I’m pondering what Transparency and Accountability as a movement is actually about, and what it lacks. Ok, mostly about what it lacks.

No doubt, Open Data and Open Government, freely sharing budget information and aid dollar flows, this all is amazing and difficult work. I’ve had my own triumphs and tragedies trying technological interventions in large organizations, targetted change in how they collaborate and share knowledge. Especially at the UNDP with WaterWiki, to share all sorts of knowledge on water governance across institutional boundaries, and with more thematic generality, and more mixed results, with UNDP workspaces. Yes, great to see the UNDP recently embrace open data (though they have always been particularly transparent on their project financing). In any case, I know this isn’t easy work at all.

However, I see this kind of transparency work, so far, reinforcing traditional power structures, rather than substantially engaging the people and communities that are supposed to be the beneficiaries of all of this cash and projects that open data describes and monitors. The focus is on big aid organizations, and big governments, institutions which by their nature love data, and are equipped to use it. Open Data is in spirit and narrative a close cousin of Open Source, but on examination of practice it operates in a traditional top down way. For instance, Open Data Kenya was a quite exciting development, a developing country with a troubled history of corruption, leading the way to sharing its data holdings. Yet in the nearly half year since its launch, I find a troubling lack of real impactful applications of that data, an active community around that data, or a real vibrancy of new data and discussion on site itself. Was it all hype? I hope not. Now I’m not in Kenya anymore, so maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t get the sense that the hacking and conversation continues. When we look at what Open Data means for OpenStreetMap, yes, all the data is open to contribution and reuse, but everyone deeply involved agrees, the real strength of OSM is the active community that really really cares about the data.

Within this field, there is confusion especially in the word “participatory”. Participatory technology and participatory development share some vocabulary and rhetoric, both are about true engagement in a process, but in practice, there are significant differences in approach. For instance, participtory development stresses a slow pace, building trust, not pushing forward with interventions until there is true ownership in the process from the community. It’s slow, clumsy and messy. Participatory technology inherits the fast pace of Silicon Valley, pushing outputs online as fast and flexibly as possible. They react in all sorts of unanticipated ways, which we know all too well from Map Kibera. Joining the two methodologies is powerful, as people from widely varying backgrounds and different socioeconomic status can find neutral ground in their love of shiny new gadgets and gaining friends on Facebook. But beyond that spark, to really have technology lead to change takes building relationships, 3 years at least for a full arc rather than 3 months.

And there’s confusion in the term “crowd sourcing”. I try to avoid it as much as possible. Any truly functional “crowd sourcing” project has a definite structure. It will no doubt be a flexible and interesting and open structure, but definitely not simply a mob just waiting for a mobile app to land on their phones that changes the world for them by pressing some buttons. A functional open project is going to have the complexity of any human society, but with a few distinguishing core principles of radical inclusiveness.

The danger in this confusion is that excitement over transparency can actually obscure a lack of true engagement.

It’s really helpful to go back to the origin for all these movements, with is Open Source. In a “true” open source effort, the participants maintain an ongoing, flexible relationship. Organizations and initiatives come and go, but the code and the direct personal relationships are always there, able to proceed when ready. Coding can happen when a big company pays for work, or when a hacker is just super psyched about a new feature. The Bazaar is a complex community. Despite sharing this model, there’s a contrast in the world of technology, transparency and accountability. When it comes to actual work, suddenly the technology and especially the relationships in the community, are predominantly the Cathedral old model. Relationships between funders, technologists, and communities are not very much in the open, they are not that flexible, and are beholden to short term funding and project structures. Technology pilots can reinforce the worst of a “brief case NGO”, where the relationships crucial to proper participatory development can’t form.

For an example, I lay open the ups and downs of a small side branch of Map Kibera, in budget tracking at the very local, community level. With the base map of the Kibera slum, the promise was that citizens could monitor government funded projects locally. We were partnering with a Community Based Organization, who’s mission was information collection, sharing, and action. However, this org had very little information management capacity itself … piles of unprocessed papers and surveys, powerpoint presentations abused into functioning as databases. So we built a better, simple web app to collect very local reports on these projects, and map them. And then we worked intensively with the local organization to use the tool, to structure their monitoring, and use in their outreach. They loved it. It even won an honorable mention in Apps4Africa, and Secretary Clinton mentioned it in a speech. Soon after, the CBO presented the tool at a community forum on the local budgets, and hell broke lose. Some of the reports were out of date … the projects had completed (in some fashion, apparently), so distrust was thrown onto the tool itself. And the CBO never really had the time to train fully on the system, and before you knew it, relationships were breaking down over money and ownership issues. The idea is still sound, but it will take time to build the capacity with the right coalition of organizations in Kibera, a lot of slow messy and necessary community work. Despite that reality, the story could easily be “we won Apps4Africa and transformed Kibera”. Who’s doing the real transparency work for these projects in communities?

There’s a role emerging which straddles this participatory technology / development divide, moves the hype towards reality. Maybe it’s a new kind of NGO, or network, or some other configuration, that works very close in the community, with a long term view, in the grassroots, but also very adept at technology. Map Kibera as a project has metamorphasized as the Map Kibera Trust to fill this role. In East Jerusalem, Grassroots Jerusalem fits closely. They work every day in marginalized Palestinian communities, build relationships not with big NGOs, but small community groups which may be nothing more than a prominent person’s living room. And at the same time, they are building their understanding of technology, of mapping in OpenStreetMap, of using Facebook, YouTube and Ushahidi to get stories out, and helping their grassroots colleagues to get involved … slowly. It’s a dual role, very very much in the field, getting dirty, experiencing first hand every day what these technologies actually mean for communities.

For the technologists and organizations coming together this week, I believe we need to focus on how we can help support more organizations to emerge into this role. Does it mean, say, embedding those experienced in these methodologies with Rising Voices grantees, exploring new configurations of actors like in communities, university students, and government in Tandale mapping, or finding ways for locally communities from across to globe to support each other directly?

I do think the Transparency and Accountability Initiative is acknowledging this. In the report Impact case studies from middle income and developing countries, they find

Our third and largest category consists of technological interventions that are tailored to advance the very specific agendas of particular non-governmental or governmental organisations by amplifying their capabilities and strategies. Cidade Democrática, the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool, Uchaguzi and Kiirti all fit this pattern. In this category, success depends upon a successful marriage between particular technologies and the capabilities and efficacy of particular organisations that seek to utilise them. We feel that most of the potential for technology to have an impact on accountability will lie in this third category.

and they recommend

Interventions in the third category are more likely to succeed when those who create the technology are embedded in local NGO networks, so that they understand the motivations and strategies of organised users and can tailor their efforts to fit them.

A promising direction for this week!

One Comment on “Revealing Transparency and its relation to Community Empowerment”

  1. […] much are communities benefiting from the process? How much are they involved? Mikel Maron wrote a great post yesterday on the link between open data and community empowerment – I highly recommend reading it for […]

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