Governance

Does "Smart" Make Sense?

Source : Cisco Smart Cities

If you are reading this blog, I bet you have attended an event in the recent past where the new buzzy topic “Smart Cities” was discussed. I have been to several such events lately. Interestingly, each mention of ‘smart city’ I heard carried a slightly different meaning. Further, there is seldom an answer to the question, “To what end are the cities smart?”. So I decided to to clarify “smart cities” for myself. Here are some of my thoughts. READ MORE »

Leadership in the Digital Economy - 20 MPs from around the world hit DC and Silicon Valley

NDItech - Product Development Process

© Dilbert Project Management

This is the first in a series of posts on the NDItech team’s product development process. NDI’s tech products attempt to solve specific problems for people and organizations in emerging democracies. In this post, will look at the example of DemTools development to get an insight into our development process. More about DemTools can be found here.

For the last six months, our team has been following follow the scrum methodology, which is an agile software development framework, for the development and evolution of DemTools. Agile methodology allows us to be flexible, prioritize tasks, and respond to the evolving requirements of our customers.

We wanted to share a bit about how we’re using this agile methodology for developing tech-powered political change programs here at NDI. In this post we’ll tell you how we relate to people and programs, how we think about requirements, and the timelines for our sprints, and the tools we use to glue it all together.

Customers

For the purpose of development of DemTools, the primary customers are the country teams at NDI. The country teams in turn help political parties and civil society organizations in their respective countries use and benefit from NDI’s technology efforts, such as DemTools. READ MORE »

The Influence of Social Media and New Technologies in Afghanistan

Panelists, Tech Rising Event (USIP)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog post by Katherine Bradbury, Project Assistant on NDI's Asia team.

In March 2002, NDI established an office in Afghanistan and has since worked to promote the participation of civic groups, political parties, women, and government bodies in the country’s political and electoral processes. This process has taken place in the context of a difficult transition from Taliban rule to new democratic institutions. While political organizations and civil society groups have made progress in advancing democratic political processes, much more needs to be done to protect gains Afghanistan has made in democratic governance, political pluralism, and the protection of human rights, especially the rights of women. Security, political stability, and democratic governance are closely linked, and the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government hinges on credible elections. The recent 2014 presidential and provincial elections presented an opportunity to promote fair and peaceful competition for political power, and sustain the progress that has been made to-date in Afghanistan. READ MORE »

Meet DemTools: Closing the Geek Gap

DemTools: Open Source for Opening Politics

In the last few years, powerful, cloud-based web apps have revolutionized the way business, civic groups and governments engage with citizens. Online campaign management systems helped empower Barack Obama’s supporters to organize their communities on the way to victory; sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems help businesses effectively push their wares; online communication platforms connect marketers with the populace.

Human rights and democracy advocates in the developing world have been left stranded in this leap to more effective tools. There’s a new form of digital divide that’s emerged: call it the geek gap. There are a lot of sophisticated open source software systems out there, but free software is a bit like a free puppy: the problem ain't the initial price, it’s the care and feeding over years. In low-infrastructure societies, there just aren’t a lot of people with the sophisticated systems administration skills to set up a Linux server, configure Apache, set up MySQL, and install a web application like Drupal. While there are great commercial options, struggling human rights organizations often can’t write the checks to keep those services running.

NDItech has been working on technology for development for over fifteen years, and we’ve seen the same problems manifest repeatedly. Sustainability in development is hard, and when it comes to tech it’s harder. Keeping the lights on - and web sites running - years after a project ends just doesn’t happen very often.

We're attempting to cut that Gordian knot with DemTools: the Democracy Toolkit. We’re launching with a set of four web apps that solve some of the most common problems our global network of partners have experienced. DemTools development was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). READ MORE »

Towards a Standard Open Decisions API

Mapping of APIs and data formats and tools are currently being used

Editor’s Note: Cross-posted from NDI's OpeningParliament blog.

At this year’s Open Knowledge Festival -- a biennial gathering of open government advocates -- there was considerable interest in moving toward greater standardization of APIs (application programming interface) relating to government decision-making processes. Web APIs help promote an open architecture for sharing content and data between communities and applications. Standardization of APIs for government decision-making data would allow tools built by civic innovators or governments to analyze or visualize data about government decision-making to be used across multiple jurisdictions, without needing to re-program the tool to accommodate differing data formats or ways of accessing the data.

Most government decision-making procedures involve similar processes (meetings, requests for public comment, etc.), decision-points (committee hearings, committee meetings, plenary sessions, etc.) and supporting documentation (agendas, draft legislation, information on voting records, etc.). Standardizing the ways that these types of information are structured allows tools for visualizing data about open government decision-making to be used across jurisdictions, as well as facilitating comparison of data and information.

To discuss the state of play with respect to open government decision-making APIs, Open Knowledge Finland, Open North, and the National Democratic Institute organized a session at the Open Knowledge Festival 2014 in Berlin to explore the possibilities for moving toward a global standard for APIs that deal with data on government decision-making.

Ongoing Efforts READ MORE »

New NDITech Friends in the Northern Virginia Tech Community

NVTC

NDI has been reaching out to the tech community over the last few years to explore mutually beneficial ways to work together. You may recall our conference in Silicon Valley last year, billed Governing Democratically in a Tech-Empowered World. Next week we're venturing south to engage the tech community in northern Virginia with our new friends from the NVTC - the Northern Virginia Technology Council. 
 
NDI and the International Committee of the NVTC are co-hosting a lunch discussion that hits on a couple of the key themes we're working on surrounding technology and democracy these days - digital security and civic innovation. The first panel, Digital Security to Protect Human Rights and Democracy Activists, will feature former NDItech star Ian Schuler and Amie Stepanovich - Senior Policy Counsel from Access. The panel will be moderated by Mohamed Reda, Chair of the International Committee of NVTC. Following a nice lunch the second panel - Technology, Civic Innovation and Democracy Support - will be moderated by Alex Howard and feature Megan Ryskamp Partnerships from Google; Amy Ngai Director of Partnerships and Training from the Sunlight Foundation; and our own Scott Hubli - Director of Governance from NDI.
 

The Cyber Losers: The Weaponization of Cyberspace and Its Affect on Human and Democracy Rights

Cyber Capabilities Over Time

I just returned from the International Studies Association conference in Toronto, Canada where thousands of scholars from around the world gathered to discuss virtually every topic imaginable related to international affairs. I presented two papers on two separate panels. Below is a topline summary of one paper and its substantive findings and relevant criticism from a panel of experts. This paper will be published in the academic journal “Democracy and Security” in a forthcoming edition. 

Are national security issues in cyberspace were spurring states to “arm” themselves with cyber tools, capabilities, and laws to combat one another? And if states are arming themselves what does this mean for human and democracy rights activists with substantially fewer resources than nation states? 

With a limited sample I built a case for the existence of a security dilemma in cyberspace and then attempted to establish a correlation between increases in cyber capabilities, tools and legal and regulatory developments to the oppression of state actors. What might you ask is the security dilemma? The definition of the security dilemma comes from Robert Jervis who states: “many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others.” The security dilemma is the central thesis of realist international politics as outlined by Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and others. To survive, states must establish and maintain their relative power positions in the context of other states. Figure 1 & 2 below illustrate the security dilemma as it is developed in cyberspace.  READ MORE »

Crowdsourcing & Community Mapping for Better Governance

Mapping FTW

Over the past few years, numerous examples in our everyday life have surfaced on how crowdsourcing & mapping data have helped improve delivery of public services. From, Bostwana Speaks to OpenIDEO, we have all grown to love data on maps and the power of aggregating data from citizens. In fact, we at @NDITech are big fans of mapping and data analysis, which we have leveraged to build a couple of Incredibly Cool Tools (yes, that’s a play on ICT) that we like to brag about...once in a while. READ MORE »

Tracking the Money with OpenSpending.org

OpenSpending.org

Last Tuesday, NDI was lucky enough to hope Anders Pederson to talk about Open Knowledge Foundation’s new project, OpenSpending.org. Understanding how governments spend money is important; It affects the lives of citizens. Governments often claim they spend money “on behalf” of their citizens without any real monitoring of exactly where the money goes once it leaves taxpayer pockets. Perhaps your government announced an increase in spending on education, a position you supported, as part of their election campaign. However, without open and easy access to government spending it is almost impossible to know if that promise was followed through on. READ MORE »

A Global First: A permanent hacker space in the Brazilian Congress

Hacking Congress. Photo credit: Brazilian Chamber of Deputies.

On December 17, the presidency of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution that creates a permanent Laboratório Ráquer or “Hacker Lab” inside the Chamber — a global first. The full text of the resolution in Portuguese is here. The resolution mandates the creation of a physical space at the Chamber that is “open for access and use by any citizen, especially programmers and software developers, members of parliament and other public workers, where they can utilize public data in a collaborative fashion for actions that enhance citizenship.”

The idea was born out of a week-long, hackathon (or “hacker marathon”) event hosted by the Chamber of Deputies in November, with the goal of using technology to enhance the transparency of legislative work and increase citizen understanding of the legislative process. More than 40 software developers and designers worked to create 22 applications for computers and mobile devices. The applications were voted on and the top three awarded prizes.

The winner was Meu Congress, a website that allows citizens to track the activities of their elected representatives, and monitor their expenses. Runner-ups included Monitora, Brasil!, an Android application that allows users to track proposed bills, attendance and the Twitter feeds of members; and Deliberatório, an online card game that simulates the deliberation of bills in the Chamber of Deputies.

The hackathon engaged the software developers directly with members and staff of the Chamber of Deputies, including the Chamber’s President, Henrique Eduardo Alves. Hackathon organizer Pedro Markun of Transparencia Hacker made a formal proposal to the President of the Chamber for a permanent outpost, where, as Markun said in an email, “we could hack from inside the leviathan’s belly.” The Chamber’s Director-General has established nine staff positions for the Hacker Lab under the leadership of the Cristiano Ferri Faria, who spoke with me about the new project.

READ MORE »

Voto Mobile - Engaging and Polling Citizens with the Power of Voice

Voto - Mobile Engagement, Simplified

There is an election in a week,  you want to poll the citizenry before the election, and your financial resources are limited. What should you do? Should you (A.) Give up because it is simply not possible to get a full-fledged poll out in the field. (B.) Beg your donor to give you a last minute cash infusion to bring on more staff and a polling company. (C.) Join the 21st Century and leverage technology to generate a fully randomized national telephone poll using a platform like Voto Mobile. Voto Mobile's goal is to make interacting with an audience via mobile phones - either one-way via broadcast or two-way in an interactive fashion -- easy and inexpensive.

Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to sit down twice with developers and staff from the socially conscious start-up Voto Mobile. Based out of Kumasi, Ghana, Voto Mobile has the straight-forward goal of “Mobile Engagement, Simplified.” The company is leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world to enable both research and social engagement that offers CSOs, NGOs, Political Parties and other organizations new capabilities. READ MORE »

The Amazing Open Government Guide: Action Steps to Accountable and Transparent Governments

Open Government Guide

One of the coolest things this week that we have seen is the newly released Open Government Guide. NDItech is this week at the Open Government Partnership Summit in London where NDI is launching the Legislative Opennes Working Group focused on parliamentary openness, among other things.  The OGP is a voluntary international effort focused on fostering more transrparent and accountable government. Member governments sign on to a very high-level declaration of principles on government openness, accountability, and transparency and then develop action plans that are developed, in the ideal case, with a legitimate civil society consultative process. The action plans are supposed to be actionable and measurable.

Enter the Open Government Guide. It is meant to support the development and then adherence to specific goals in 19 areas currently. These include, for instance, budgets, public contracting, right to information and cross-cutting issues such as parliaments and elections (Disclosure: both of those chapters were contributed by NDI staff.).  Each category is divided into initial, intermediate and advanced actions that are also supported by specific recommendations, standards, and case studies.  All is presented in a highly accessible visual format. READ MORE »

Counting All Voices - New Fund Deadline November 8

Making All Voices Count website screenshot.

We talk repeatedly about transparency and civic engagement in our work, and often emphasize that it’s only when governments have the will and capacity to respond to citizen' demands that signficant social change takes place. Improving citizen action and government responsiveness always lies at the nexus of political institutions, local incentives, and power dynamics. Add to this the use of digital technoloy - ubiquitously by citizens, less so by institutions, and you see the need for very smart project design that takes all these factors into consideration. However, projects are often influenced by donors who not always understand how these systems work together. In a positive sign, a new funding mechanism requires strategic design and evidence of government and civil society collaboration up front.

The new 45-million Making All Voices Count fund is supported by USAID, DFID, SIDA, OSF and Omidyar and is implemented by Hivos, IDS and Ushahidi. The first round of proposals are due by November 8, 2013. READ MORE »

Opening Parliaments In Beautiful Visualizations

Social network analysis by KohoVolit.eu

Our friends in the Opening Parliament community have been busy this Fall, and are anticipating the Open Government Partnership (OGP) annual conference  at the end of the month. We’ve been impressed by several projects that mashup accountability mechanisms with strong data visualizations, and are highlighting them below. For a full review of parliamentary monitoring accomplishments, find more news crossposted on the Opening Parliament blog.   

In the Czech Republic, a Czech and Slovak parliamentary monitoring organization, KohoVolit.eu, has worked to visualize complex parliamentary information through social network analysis. Their visualizations demonstrate how often individual MPs sponsor bills and the collaboration relationship with other MPs (image at right).

READ MORE »

Foreign Assistance Dashboard: Aid Transparency About Where US Aid Is Going

ForeignAssistance.gov

Every year the United States gives out around $50 billion in aid to developing countries around the world.  This means the United States gives out twice as much in foreign aid as the next four counties on the list of major international donors (UK, Japan, France, and Germany).

So, where is this money going?  The U.S. Department of State and USAID have developed a new tool to help in answering that question. In late 2011 the U.S. signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a voluntary multi-national strategy to make information about foreign aid more transparent, accessible, and understandable. Launched in 2013, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard provides a way to view U.S. foreign assistance funds in a standard, easy to understand, format.  

The dashoard enables a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the U.S. aid process to examine, research, and track U.S. funding. It presents data in two ways:  First, the website presents data in user friendly graphics in specific categories such as funding received by a particular country, sector, or agency. Information can also be accessed in machine-readable form, allowing users to execute manual queries and download data sets.

Critics of the program note that while the Dashboard is a step forward for transparency, agencies have been lagging in posting information to the Dashboard.  They have also noted that data on the Dashboard is not presented in a clear format, or that information is incomplete.

READ MORE »

Can Open Data Improve Democratic Governance?

Analyzing MP Voting Records by Kohovolit.eu

Earlier this month, I sat in an auditorium with political scientists, civic start-ups and data geeks that were prompted to answer the question: Can open data improve democratic governance?

NDI supports projects that deal with opening up government data, particularly in emerging democracies (such as these examples on our sister site Openingparliament.org). We, along with many of our partners engaged in this work, believe that open data can improve governance by facilitating better decision-making and potentially help build trust in and engagement with policy makers. With better information, citizens and governments are also able to ultimately make better decisions.

At the event “Can Open Data Improve Democratic Governance” hosted at U.C. Berkeley, presenters focused on how policymakers can better benefit from data use, i.e. how open data can improve democratic governance. Participants also discussed achievement gaps in order to understand how the open data community should evolve in order to improve governance outcomes.

READ MORE »

Is Tech a Scapegoat for Political FOIA Failures?

"Public access to information is democratic aspiration still to be fulfilled."  This insight comes from CIMA’s new report, Breathing Life into Freedom of Information Laws: The Challenges of Implementation in the Democratizing World. Evaluating case studies from Albania, Armenia, Indonesia, Jamaica, South Africa, and Ukraine, the report lists the following recommendations to improve upon existing Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation:

  • Officials of national and local governments who are responsible for responding to citizens’ requests for information must be properly organized, trained, funded, and protected.

  • Because government touches everything, a FOI law should touch everything.

  • It should be recognized that a FOI law is most important to average citizens at the local government level.

  • Many FOI laws are based on a presumption of access, stating that government records are accessible with certain exceptions; the exceptions should be based on the likelihood of harm that could arise as a result of disclosure.

  • The law should not require that government officers, employees, or agencies go to unreasonable lengths to accommodate applicants.

OpenSpending.org: Promoting Transparency in Government Spending

Source: Openspending.org

In an effort to increase transparency and citizen oversight of government spending, a new online project was developed to track government as well as corporate financial transactions throughout the world. Operated by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) and funded by organizations such as the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundation and 4IP, Openspending.org “maps money” by collecting information about government spending across the globe, and presents results in an accessible and engaging manner. 

A community-driven organization, OKFN uses technology to promote open knowledge and data, making it easier for citizens to observe how their taxes are being spent by government. Members of the OKFN’s Openspending.org community work together to build tools and online communities that encourage collaboration in the use and production of digital information. As mentioned on the site, the Openspending.org team is comprised of staff and volunteers who constantly discuss and develop new and innovative ways “to monitor and explain budgets and government spending through the use of technology.”

According to the OKFN team, Openspending came about because, as they note "there is no 'global atlas' of spending, no integrated, searchable database which would be a valuable resource for policy-makers and civil society alike. We want anyone to be able to go to their local council or national government, request the data, upload, understand and visualise it and contribute to this 'spending commons', which anyone can benefit from.” READ MORE »

Blurring the Boundaries for the Common Good

CitizenLab Sponsored the 2013 Connaught Summer Institute at the University of Toronto

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead

For the last week I have been holed up with approximately 60 computer scientists, activists, and social scientists from around the world at the Connaught Summer Institute hosted by CitizenLab at the University of Toronto. The individuals gathered here are some of the top minds in monitoring internet openness and rights. For the last 5 days, each of us has either presented a paper, case studies, or posters on issues most people never think about, but should.

We have engaged one another in a cross-disciplinary give and take. The problem this institute seeks to address, as identified by the CitizenLab, is a lack of dialogue occurring between academic disciplines and with academia and activists on the ground. The entire goal, as it has become apparent, is to begin the process of blurring the boundaries between the disciplines and with activists. READ MORE »

Governing Democratically in a Tech-Empowered World

#tech4dem

NDI's Governance and NDItech teams are co-convening, with illustrious partners (Omidyar, International IDEA, CDDRL at Stanford University, Google.org, and other) a conference in the next few days on how democratic institutions respond to and more effectively to a global citizenry that is empowered with technology in unprecedented ways. Democratic institutions  -- parliaments, parties, and governments -  are under pressure to perform more efficiently and effectively, to open their often opaque ways, to be more accountable to their citizens - in short, to govern better.  Around the world, established and emerging democracies are struggling to adapt to citizens who are mobilized with phones, tweets and Facebook pages. They are often slow to change and reluctant to give up old paradigms of power and access to (or withholding of) information. 

The conference "Governing Democratically in a Tech-Empowered World" comes at a critical and historical juncture. The Arab spring is largely behind us and the messy, and hard work of governing has just begun there. Parliaments are trying to figure out how to open their processes and become more responsive to citizen input while citizens are organizing, monitoring, and building alternative parties and movements. Governments are under pressure to open up all kinds of data with citizen groups scraping, API-ing and using and re-using governmental data to make it more usable and applicable to everyday citizens.

Those with vested power are learning that the gatekeeping functions such as access and control of and to information is no longer possible in a socia media and tech-empowered world.  At the same time, there is a contraction of civil liberties and freedom of expression online and tech is being used against democratization efforts. One participant describes this as a "cut and paste" movement of autocratic governments learning online from each other on how to surveil, restrict, and limit their citizenries with technology. 

One #tech4dem participant put the challenge well: "The game has changed. You can not find the existing reality, you have to come up with a new one."   

READ MORE »

#FutureNews - Techifying Parliamentary Communications

#FutureNews - The Communications of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World

A new report published in the UK examines the role that technology plays in providing citizens access to information and events related to Parliament. The report: “#FutureNews - The Communications of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World,” provides an interesting look at a strategic approach of the UK to increasing the openness of White Hall.  It's long been evident that technology is diversifying the media through which citizens consume news and entertainment. It's also clear that it is incumbent upon governments to keep up with citizens to maintain transparency and accountability in democratic processes.  Using new technologies and media strategies, the report argues, Parliament must insert itself in to the public debate and add substantive value to the the political conversation. 

Following are key findings from the report and a brief discussion on how these takeaways are applicable in the developing world from an NDI Tech4Dem perspective.  READ MORE »

Innovation in Context

Innovation comes in many forms. And you sure hear it a lot.

Given my instinctive cringe whenever I hear the term "innovation" these days, the word may a wee bit overused. However, it the concept remains as important as ever - if organizations aren't trying new things, they're stagnating.

As a global organization working with partners in a lot of different country contexts, though, I sometimes have to check myself and remember that innovation lives in local contexts. NDI's supported scores of sophisticated election monitoring missions across the world using the Partial Vote Tabulation system, including most recently in Kenya. The methodology's a tried and true one - I'll write it up soon - and has been used for over a decade. From a global perspective, it ain't new.

In Tunisia, however, it's a massive step. (No, not this kind of step.)

Given their shiny new democracy and the fact they've only had one real fair election in generations, any form of election monitoring is new. Moving to one that requires thousands of citizens across the country to work in concert with an extraordinary degree of accuracy is a big deal. READ MORE »

Tech-ifying Development: Perspectives on Opportunities and Problems

New Publication on Dev and Tech

We have been reading a new report from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy “Diplomacy, Security and Development in the Information Age”. Edited by Shanthi Kalathil, the collection of papers relates directly to organizations using tech in international development activities. We are particularly impressed with Joseph Siegle’s article: “Managing Volatility with the Expanded Access to Information in Fragile States.” 

Siegle addresses a range of issues ranging from civic participation to the potential marginalization and radicalization of individuals in fragile states - all of interest to us. Siegle interestingly notes that information is a central aspect affecting the stability of fragile states. He finds explicitly that information and communications technologies can serve as both an opportunity and a threat to societies in such states. He notes that channels by which information is conveyed are essentially value neutral, and rightly illustrates that it information itself and the context are the critical factors to investigate. 

Siegle’s insight is important for all implementers of tech in development as they initiate projects around the world. Information can increase transparency and oversight if it is accurate and unbiased and contextulalized by actors experienced in political organizing. Similarly, platforms for open democracy can shine light on corruption and political abuse if advanced by groups (such as media or citizen organizations) with credibility. 

Among the tactics Siegle highlights is parallel vote counting. Siegle states: “Election monitoring groups are able to conduct parallel vote counts (Parallel Vote Tabulation, PVT) at each local polling station and report these results back to a central headquarters,enabling real-time projections that challenge dubious official results.” Much of the data collection and reporting of election data is done via SMS and sophisticated back-end parsing and analytical engines to ensure credible analysis by monitoring organizations.  NDI recently assisted in a PVT with our local partner ELOG in Kenya.  READ MORE »

The People Are Calling: Interactive Voice Services for Citizen Participation

ILA Dhageyso, a project out of Somaliland uses IVR to facilitate citizen-government interaction.

So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above. READ MORE »

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