Technology Salon

New York

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How to Improve Transparency, Accountability and Governance with New Technologies

Civil society has been working for years on participation, transparency, accountability and governance issues. Plenty of newer initiatives (small and large) look at new technologies as a core tool in this work. But are these groups talking and learning from each other?

What good practices exist for using new technologies to improve transparency, accountability and governance? What are some considerations and frameworks for thinking about the role of new technologies in this area of work? What needs consideration under this broad theme of good governance?

Tuesday’s Technology Salon* in New York City focused on those issues, kicked off by our two discussants, Hapee de Groot from Hivos and Katrin Verclas from Mobile Active. Discussion ensued around the nuances of how, with whom, when, why, and in conjunction with what do new technologies play a role in transparency, accountability and good governance. Some of the key points brought up during the Salon:

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What is “good governance?”

The overall term could be divided into a number of core aspects, and so the discussion is a big one and it’s complicated. Aid transparency is only one small part of the overall topic of good governance.
The World Bank definition includes aspects of:

  • Participation of citizens in political processes, freedom of expression and association, free media
  • Political stability and absence of violence
  • Government effectiveness in the delivery of services
  • Regulatory quality, rule of law
  • Control of corruption

There’s a need to look at governments and aid, but also to look at the private sector. Some commented that aid transparency is in vogue because donors can drive it but it’s perhaps not as important as some of the other aspects and it’s currently being overemphasized. There are plenty of projects using ICTs and mobiles in other areas of governance work.

More data doesn’t equal more accountability.

Data does not equal participation. Can mobile phones and other ICTs or social media reduce corruption? Can they drive new forms of participation? Can they hold power accountable in some ways? Yes, but there is no conclusive evidence that the use of new technology to deliver data down from governments to people or up from people to governments improves governance or accountability. The field of tech and governance suffers from ‘pilotitis’ just like the field of ICT4D. Some participants felt that of course open data doesn’t automatically equal accountability and it was never the idea to stop there. But at the same time, you can’t have accountability without open data and transparency. Opening the data is just the first step in a long road of reaching accountability and better governance.

Efficient vs transformational.

Transactional efficiency within a system is one thing. Transformation is another. You can enhance an existing process from, say, writing on paper to calling on a landline to texting in information, thereby improving accuracy and speed. But there is something more which is the transformational side. What’s most interesting perhaps are those ways that ICTs can completely alter processes and systems.

Again, there are a lot of promising examples but there is not much evidence of their impact at this point. One participant noted that current evidence seems to point toward the integration of mobiles (and other ICTs) into existing process as having a greater impact and quicker uptake within large, bureaucratic systems than disruptive use of new technologies.

But the question remains – Are the systems good systems or should/could ICTs transform them to something totally different and better or can ICTs help do away with poorly working systems entirely, replacing them with something completely new?

Is open data just a big show?

Some alluded to opaque transparency, where a government or another entity throws up a bunch of data and says “we are being open” but there is no realistic way to make sense of the data. Some felt that governments are signing onto open data pacts and partnerships as a fake show of transparency. These governments may say, “The data base is available. Go ahead and look at it.”

But it costs a lot of money and high level skills to actually use the data. In addition, there is a need for regulatory frameworks and legislation around openness. Brazil was given as an example of a country that has joined the open government partnership, but as yet has no regulatory framework or freedom of information act, even though the country has a beautiful open government website. “Checks and balances are not inherent in the mobile phone. They need to be established in the legislation and then can be enhanced by mobile or other technology.”

Open Data Hackathons can help turn data into information. The question of “what does open data actually mean?” came up also and the “cake test” was recommended as one way of defining “open”.

Is open data an extractive process?

Some at the Salon cautioned that the buzz around Open Data could be a bit false in some ways, and may be hyped up by private companies who want to make money off of nice data visualizations that they can sell to big donors or governments. The question was raised about how much data actually gets back to those people who provide it so that they can use it for their own purposes?

The sense was that there’s nothing wrong with private companies helping make sense of data per se, but one could ask what the community who provided the data actually gets out of this process. Is it an extractive data mining process? And how 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 more on this.

Whose data?

A related issue that wasn’t fully discussed at the Salon is: who does the information that is being “opened” actually belong to (in the case of household surveys, for example)? The government? The International NGO or multilateral agency who funds a project or research? The community? And what if a community doesn’t want its data to be open to the world – is anyone asking? What kind of consent is being granted? What are the privacy issues? And what if the government doesn’t want anyone to know the number of X people living in X place who fit X description? Whose decision is it to open data? What are the competing politics?

For example, what if an organization is working on an issue like HIV, cholera, violence or human trafficking. What if they want to crowd source information and publicly display it to work towards better transparency and improved service delivery, but the host government country denies the existence of the issue or situation?

In one case I heard recently, the NGO wanted to work with government on better tracking and reporting so that treatment/resources could be allocated and services provided, but when the government found out about the project, they wanted control over the information and approval rights. Government went so far in another case as to pressure the mobile service provider who was partnering with the organization, and the mobile service provider dropped out of the project.

These are good reminders that information is power and openness can be a big issue even in cases not initially identified as politically charged.

Privacy and security risks.

The ubiquity of data can pose huge privacy and security concerns for activists, civil society and emerging democracies and some at the Salon felt this aspect is not being effectively addressed. Can there really be anonymous mobile data? Does the push/drive for more data jeopardize the political ambitions of certain groups (civil society that may be disliked by certain governments)?

This can also be an issue for external donors supporting organizations in places like Syria or Iraq. Being open about local organizations that are receiving funding for democracy or governance work can cause problems (eg., they get shut down or people can be arrested or killed).

Can new ICTs weaken helpful traditional structures or systems?

Is new tech removing some middlemen who were an important part of culture or societal structure? Does it weaken some traditional structures that may actually be useful? The example of the US was given where a huge surge of people now engage directly with their congressperson via Twitter rather than via aggregation channels or other representatives. Can this actually paralyze political systems and make them less functional?

Some countered, saying that Twitter is somewhat of a fad and over time this massive number of interactions will settle down, and in addition, not everyone gets involved on every issue all the time. Things will sort themselves out. Some asked if politicians would become afraid (someone – help!! there is a study on this issue that I can’t seem to locate) to make some of the secret deals that helped move agendas forward because they will be caught and so openness and transparency can actually paralyze them? In other words is it possible that transparency is not always a good thing in terms of government effectiveness?

The example of paying Afghan police directly by mobile phone was given. This initiative apparently ended up failing because it cut decision makers who benefited from bribes out of the loop. Decoupling payments from power is potentially transformational, but how to actually implement these projects when they disrupt so much?

Does new technology create parallel structures?

Are parallel structures good or bad? In an effort to bypass inefficient and/or unaccountable systems, in one case, private business owners started their own crime reporting and 911 system to respond and accompany victims to report to the police and follow up on incidents.

Questions were raised whether this privatization of government roles was taking justice into ones’ own hands, forcing the government to be accountable, allowing it to shirk responsibilities, or providing a way for government to see an innovation and eventually take on a new and more effective system that had been tried and tested with private funds. This same issue can be seen with parallel emergency reporting systems and other similar uses of ICTs.
It may be too early in the game to know what the eventual outcomes of these efforts will be and what the long term impact will be on governance. Or it may be that parallel systems work in some contexts and not in others.


The Salon could have gone for much longer but alas, we had to end. Dave Algoso covers some of the other ideas from the Salon in his post Technology for Transparency, Accountability and Governance, including how to approach and define the topic (top down vs bottom up? efficiency vs transformation?) and the importance of measuring impact.

Thanks to UNICEF and Chris Fabian for hosting the Salon. Thanks to Martin Tisne from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for sparking the idea to choose this topic for the first Technology Salon in NYC, and thanks to Wayan Vota for inviting me to coordinate the series.

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