transitions online

Transparency Tech and Riga Rioters

Suddenly, the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' I'm leading in Riga in a couple of days (February 5th & 6th) has been given a sharper focus. On January 14th hundreds of demonstrators clashed with riot police in Riga after an anti-government protest. The disillusioned young people involved, fed up with what they see as arrogant and corrupt governance, are ripe for being reached by pro-transparency NGOs. This isn't just the case in Latvia but plays out in different ways across a lot of the Central and Eastern European countries where the NGOs attending our workshop are based.

We'll certainly be accelerating their pilot projects as mySociety's Tony Bowden (handily based in nearby Estonia) will be passing on his experiences of developing the definitive Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. But as I found out at last year's Crowdsourcing for transparency launch there's an urgent need to boost the way the NGOs mobilize through social media. This time round they'll have the benefit of Nixon McInnes's Anna Carlson taking them through a buzz monitoring and network mapping bootcamp.

Personally, I'm fired up by the potential of Ushahidi-style transparency engines that can be cloned and deployed in different settings; and by engine I mean both the tech and the collaborative model that it embodies. This Latvian blogger seems to think a clampdown on free speech may follow the recent disturbances in Riga. Certainly, whatever tools & techniques the NGOs settle on will get a reality-check from experienced digital activist Sami Ben Gharbia who knows all about repressive regimes. Fascinatingly the same Latvian blogger refers to an emerging youth movement called The Penguins (Pingvini). What are we to make of the fact that their civil disobedience blog sports the Linux penguin..?

Crowdsourcing for transparency in Central & Eastern Europe

This weekend I'll be running a workshop for Transitions Online in Prague. It kicks off for a year long initiative to give NGOs in Central & Eastern Europe the web tools and strategies to promote transparency, anti-corruption & good governance. I think it's a pretty cool project because it's tapping into internet memes like crowdsourcing and applying them in a context where there's an urgent social need.

The project is also trying to seed learnings from the USA (Sunlight Foundation) and UK (mySociety) and build on local initiatives like Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza appealing to its readers to report on their experiences of Polish maternity wards.

I think it's vital that young civil society organisations learn to use the power of the web. I'll be passing on what I've learned about social media campaigning, but I'm also trying to think of other ways that these groups can get ideas and support. Maybe finding mentors from more experienced groups, maybe encouraging them to join UnLtdWorld as a way to stay in touch and find friendly help. Any other ideas gratefully received.

More details from the Transitions Online project spec:

Project: Interactive Tech Tools for Better Transparency

Project duration: 12 months

This year-long initiative seeks to provide NGOs in the new member states of the EU (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria) with web tools and strategies that will better enable them to promote transparency and good governance norms in their respective countries. The Internet is a powerful tool for the dissemination of information to the public and policymakers; however, NGOs in this region have been slow to adopt Internet-based approaches and, as a result, a great deal of their socially-useful research remains unavailable or poorly organized, having limited influence on public policy.

In addition, rarely, if ever, have NGOs used innovative Internet approaches to recruit their members or the larger public into data collection or analysis – though these approaches have started to undercover public wrongdoing in North America and parts of Western Europe.

The core project activities include a training seminar in Prague, drawing together representatives from various NGOs in the region; three pilot projects to test the strategies discussed at the seminar; the creation of an e-learning course; and a closing evaluation meeting in Riga to access the lessons learned over the course of the year.

The pilot projects will take the form of "watchblogs" or online monitoring sites tracking key issues of importance, as well as a website aggregating the affiliated watchblogs and collecting feedback from participating organizations and the wider public. The watchblogs will be modeled after successful corruption-combating projects like FollowTheMoney.org, a website tracking the sources and uses of money to influence officials in the United States, and OpenCongress.org, a non-partisan resource monitoring the development of legislation, issues before Congress, and Congress members' votes. These and other similar projects have been sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation , an organization that harnesses the power of the Internet to help citizens better understand and monitor what their elected officials are doing.

The proposed project also aims to acquaint NGOs with the concept of crowdsourcing as a potentially valuable strategy "specifically, recruiting the aid of the public in the analysis of data. Crowdsourcing has been effectively used by NGOS and journalists to promote transparency in the United States over the past several years: since 2006, the Sunlight Foundation, in coordination with other NGOs and newspapers, has invited the public to help uncover which members of Congress sponsor secret spending earmarks that direct taxpayers' dollars to personally-motivated projects (see: http://earmarkwatch.org/). After a bill strengthening the Freedom of Information Act was blocked from reaching the Senate because an unknown senator placed a secret hold on it, the Society of Professional Journalists asked journalists across the country to poll their senators in order to discover who had placed the hold. (see: http://www.spj.org/ogahold.asp ). These techniques are especially useful for under-resourced organizations that would never be able to conduct such investigations on their own.

As of yet, the technique has been underutilized in Central/Eastern Europe, with one notable exception: in the summer of 2006, the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza appealed to its readers to report on their experiences of Polish maternity wards. The paper received 40,000 reviews of care standards, which were fact-checked by a team of 170 editors and volunteers. The project has since spun off into message boards with millions of posts, 200,000 uploaded photos, and local editions.

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