Using Technology to Promote Transparency

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, September 21, 2011 to Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Conversation type: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining the Tech for Transparency Team and New Tactics for a conversation on Using Technology to Promote Transparency. There has been an expanding and increasingly global movement of technology and digital media projects aimed at promoting government transparency, accountability, and public participation in political processes.  In Kenya, Mzalendo seeks to make information more accessible from the proceedings of the country’s parliament. In Jordan, Ishki aims to involve citizens in developing solutions to civic problems. Vota Inteligente in Chile promotes government transparency by informing Chilean citizens about corruption and policy debates through the use of social media.  The Technology for Transparency Network, a project of Rising Voices, is documenting these transparency projects to gain a better understanding of their current impact, obstacles, and future potential.

How have you used technology to promote transparency?

The Municipal Government of Seoul, South Korea has developed an Online Procedures Enhancement for Civil Applications (OPEN) system to reduce opaqueness of applications and provide details on areas most prone to corruption. Similarly, Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente (Smart Citizen Foundation) in Santiago, Chile creates various web technologies as a key tool for gathering, organizing, and sharing information. Their applications, among others, monitor the actions of Congress and provide a database for requesting information from the government in a way that is easy for both ordinary Chileans and the government to use. In Kenya, the Eway Foundation is developing "ethical" social media and citizen-journalist projects to address citizen-activism and human rights issues, while in Peru, the Todos somos dateros project and Tak-tak-tak in Russia stimulate dialogue between citizens, journalists and politicians, through various online and public platforms, to facilitate new and improved relationships between citizens and their governments.

A number of Latin American countries have seen the rise of groups of hackers, such as Transparency Hacker in Brazil which draws attention to making government information open, and Escuelab in Peru which is being supported by the Municipality of Lima who is providing data that was not previously accessible to citizens. Desarrollando América Latina is an event that will be held in December to help tackle some of the similar social and political issues facing many Latina American countries and organizers hope to develop innovative applications that will be used to solve specific social problems.

In Germany, LobbyControl monitors and provides awareness and transparency on lobbying locally and on the European level (as part of the broader ALTER-EU alliance). Disclosure of lobbying data is important for providing a better overview on how much lobbying is taking place on different issues, allowing a deeper analysis and to stop misleading lobby strategies. In India, technology and independent mass media has also allowed people to put pressure on the government to act against corruption and be more transparent. To address the government’s indifference, a global online platform, Micro-Leaks, was created for citizens from all over the world to report any issue of public interest, anonymously. The creators believe that from this initial data collection, they will soon be able to pressure the government to start showing visible and verifiable results, to issues of all sizes. Also in India, in Mumbai a number of groups of “activists, geeks, data people, lawyers and techies” hold “datameetings” to discuss how data and technology can be used transparency.

In 2010, CitiVox emerged after its founders along with Mexican activist Andres Lajous used an Ushahidi install to crowdsource election observation in the 2009 Mexican federal elections and it provides technology that has a built-in mechanism for mapping citizen reports and turning those reports into actions. It has been used in Honduras, by police officers using smartphones to report crime, in Benin, West Africa and in Mexico by citizens to report quality of life issues. INFONET in Kenya created the first budget tracking tool in East Africa in 2008 which has grown from just developing technology tools for social change to developing the capacity of civil society, citizens, government agencies and private sectors capacity in the strategic use of Technology.

How does the use of technology to promote transparency differ across regions, cultures, and types of governance?

Transparency is understood as the opening up of information on actions and laws to the public, providing citizens with the tools to improve understanding, vigilance, and communication. Coupled with action from the public and media, this should lead to accountability where public officials take responsibility for their actions (or inaction).

Increasingly, people are demanding reliable sources for news and in countries like Kenya an effective way of sending information has been through SMS. SMS has been used to transmit vote tallies to prevent tampering, track the budget, make the Parliament and Legislative Information System more accessible to citizens, and to monitor the country’s 2010 constitutional referendum. Websites such as (India) and a number of others in Africa allow citizens to report bribes and expose corruption anonymously.

For successful use of technology for transparency, it is essential that the technology used shouldn't vary and should be cheap, sustainable and user-friendly.

How do you engage civil society, media, government and others to increase impact?

To increase impact, local journalists must be aware of and involved in stories, using technology to improve their awareness and also provide citizens with the information they need to improve their lives. It is also necessary to remember that governments are not homogenous entities and even within unresponsive governments, there are individuals within who want to provide better services to citizens. An example of collaboration with the government for transparency is seen with Accesso Inteligente in Chile, which managed utilize government systems and information that were already available, but not easy to use. Another example is the already mentioned OPEN database system developed by the municipal government in South Korea. Some governments are open to working with transparency groups (see also sharing information about bills in Congress in an accessible way, encouraging more participation from citizens and making government information and processes more open and accessible). How to find allies in the government though depends on the context and it may be important to find newcomers and individual allies or at least some access in the non-supporting parties. The recently launched "Open Government Partnership" , which eight different countries from all over the world signed declaring to “value public participation of all people, equally and without discrimination… and commit to creating mechanisms to enable greater collaboration between governments and civil society organizations and businesses”, is a huge step towards transparency.

A smaller more private group of technology consultants came up with the idea of, a platform with a simple interface that they believe has the power to become a single point of recording issues of public concern by citizens, NGOs and activists. Other suggestions for increased impact include the removal of copyright-based legal barriers and to have cheap, resilient and universal technology. Governments and civil society can be engaged by creating an understanding within relevant organizations of why these best practices "make sense" for all, by using the best practice implementation to create community around the organizations in question and to bring organizations into the community. Perhaps it is best to have a combination of online and offline strategies for dissemination and activities to activate new information flows and interaction dynamics between the project and the users/citizens, as is done by Todos somos dateros – who has an itinerant “information-generation platform” that gathers and provides information in bus stops and stations and also publishes a free newspaper.

What are the risks, challenges and opportunities for practitioners using technology for transparency?

Overall, working on issues like corruption and transparency can be an incredibly sensitive issue. The recent Civicus World Assembly (see the report here) featured many conversations about the shrinking space for civil society in many countries. Opportunities mentioned in the report include utilizing the United Nations systems that are in place.

Organizations are at risk of having their websites hacked and need to do regular backups or, if resources allow, host their sites on multiple platforms with different hosts. Often when denouncing corruption, people reveal too much data about their activities and sites exposing corruption scandals can be subjected to heavy surveillance by authorities. A starting point to protect them can be installing Tor, a free open network software that helps defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Project participants should still be instructed and made to follow strict security protocols to protect all involved from being exposed. But people creating tools should also be aware of where they are storing information, in addition to encrypting data.

Even more serious are the risks to lives of activists. In India, as of August 2011, there were 12 recorded cases of Right to Information activists being murdered for doing their work.

To some, the most challenging issues are the non-technological, from funding to engagement with the media and authorities. It is necessary to have fully open data  but the perception of (organizational) risks by governments and NGOs can be a major challenge to practitioners advocating for or attempting to implement fully open data in these contexts. Finally, there are plenty of opportunities for practitioners, both to do social good of course, but also career-wise.

Sounds great, but how do you implement a project that uses technology to promote transparency?

Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente was one of the very first to build applications for transparency in Latin America. Their first project in 2009, Vota Inteligente, designed a program that was in coordination with the Chilean presidential elections, asking a series of questions and matching people with candidates they should vote for based their answers. It also monitored webpages, social media sites, and platforms of the candidates and since the elections has been adapted to become a permanent interactive legislative monitoring platform that allowed citizens to inform themselves about the actions of Parliament. Vota inteligente is still developing ways in which to evaluate the success of their projects, closely monitoring the number of visits to their sites, collecting information on the frequency and number of users of their applications. Success is measured not only by the pure number of information requests, but also the ability of the application to get responses from the government and the interest that people take in the request and response.

When considering where to start the development of a technology tool for transparency, practitioners should start by identifying the needs and issues they will address, then convene meetings that bring together practitioners interested in transparency and ensure that their organization is putting good transparency policies into place and not forget the need to be transparent in their work. Self-transparency on the part of practitioners (those not at personal risk of course) and NGOs is a good place to start - questions about metrics and funding are endemic to all organized activity.

Technology for Transparency finds that the ingredients vary depending on the project: some projects require little investment but lots of community support, such as the Elections Monitors, while others require a high degree of expertise and technical maintenance, but no community, such as the case of Poder Ciudadano Database on Campaign spending, monitoring Money in Politics. Then there are projects that are practically owned by the community or have the community as an essential part of it, such as in Chile and Quien paga Manda in Costa Rica but also require a lot of effort from the side of community managers. It is thus important to have clear objectives from the very beginning, and differentiate between long and short term projects (defined here).

What are the next steps? What is needed to make this work more effectively?

The technology for transparency project is valuable as a research investigation but also for documenting these projects according to topic and region. The site should continue to get updated, and the projects listed should be paired contact information for other activists looking to do similar work.  For this strategy is hugely important - too often people get excited about a new technology or project and implement it before completing the necessary planning, which can end badly.

It may be beneficial to organize less "traditional conferences" and instead organize contests for the technology people behind the project and others to get challenges and contribute with solutions with little costs. Examples of this are the Code for America initiative and the already mentioned Data Hackathons.  There is a need for coordination in both national and international in the development of the use of technology in transparency, to adapt existing successful applications and not “reinvent the wheel” in every place and for every project.


Conversation Leaders

RenataA's picture
Renata Avila
Fundación Guatemala 2020
kipp's picture
John (Kipp) Kipchumbah
LizWolf's picture
Elizabeth Wolf
Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente
mlinksva's picture
Mike Linksvayer
Creative Commons
camilabustamante's picture
Camila Bustamante
La Factura
jwyg's picture
Jonathan Gray
Open Knowledge Foundation
diegocasaes's picture
Diego Casaes
mnjonjo's picture
Mendi Njonjo
Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative
MayaGanesh's picture
Maya Indira Ganesh
Tactical Technology Collective