Strengthening Civic Engagement Through Tech

What is the difference between opengov and opendata? Are there tech tools that can help with civic engagement? How can we open up PDFs? Why don’t NGOs and academia also open up their data?

Discussing opengov issues on “The Role of Citizen Engagement in Open Governance.”

These were the questions we contemplated two weeks ago — not in San Francisco or Washington, D.C., but in Nairobi, Kenya — for the inaugural Buntwani conference hosted by the Open Institute. I had the pleasure of joining over a hundred participants for the two-day conference aimed at strengthening citizen engagement through the use of technology. The invitation-only event brought together thought leaders, government officials, civil society organizations, the private sector and media groups to discuss challenges, share successes and learn more about the open data in Africa. Amidst the lightning talks and breakout sessions, it became evident to me that the challenges we face in the U.S. when it comes to government engaging with the public (and vice versa) are actually global challenges we face the world over.

Opening up data

Kenya has an open data portal and so do a number of African countries and civil society organizations. The jury is still out as to whether these portals are successful (check out Sunlight’s review of Kenya’s open data portal). At Buntwani, the participants from civil society provided some self reflection in the Technology and Innovation session on how the sector is particularly ineffective at using government data, despite it being open, due to a lack of resources to access the data or the capacity to know what to do with it. While this is a major challenge, strategic partnerships with the private sector and social entrepreneurs was suggested as a potential solution. Another intermediary step for these resource-strapped open data proponents could be to create project inspirations or a wish list for what can and should be done with the data (here’s an example of some of the project inspirations we created based on our data).

Additionally, there is a surprising amount of data that is open without necessarily being hosted in a portal. In Nigeria, Dr. Omenogo Mejabi at the University of Ilorin has been analyzing the use of the Online National Budget of Nigeria and have hosted a hackathon and various presentations to engage the public. And if you do use open data, Linet Kwamboka, the open data project manager at the Kenya ICT Authority, expressed how it is useful to let government officials know about these efforts to help strengthen the mandate and prove the utility of open data internally.

Offline vs. online

Another theme we explored and discussed at Buntwani was the challenges and tension between offline vs. online when it comes to citizen engagement. Many participants stressed the strength and prevalence of the oral culture in Africa and the need to preserve and utilize that method of communication. Others emphasized the ability of technology to multiply the reach of traditional engagement and its efficiency in providing accurate and real-time information. In my panel on “The Role of Citizen Engagement in Open Governance,” we also discussed the challenge of the digital divide in providing online resources to an offline audience.

For me, one of the highlights of the conference was being able to hear from Chief Kariuki on how he is doing both. The local administrator of Lanet Umoja in Nakuru North District (about 100 miles away from Nairobi), Kariuki has managed to merge offline with online. Kariuki, nicknamed the "Tweeting Chief," uses social media to connect with his almost 30,000 residents on public safety, public works and public engagement. What is ironic is that most of his villagers do not have smart phones but rather feature phones and mostly communicate via SMS. Local residents subscribe to Kariuki’s tweets through a Twitter short code that allows them to receive his 140 character tweets free via SMS.

In his lightning talk, the Chief explained how his villagers call and text him to help broadcast vital information. In one example, a resident riding a local bus was hijacked by robbers. He immediately texted the Chief who was able to blast a message via Twitter to all his followers asking for assistance and notifying them of the location of the bus. The assailants, who conveniently also subscribes to Kariuki’s tweets, received the message and immediately fled the premises. While crime fighting is definitely an atypical example of technology enhancing civic engagement, Kariuki’s story highlights the potential for “online” enhancing “offline” and vice versa.

Tech as a gateway

Technology is often more effective when it is trying to solve a specific problem in the civic engagement process. A perfect example is the GotToVote project initiated by Code4Kenya and implemented by the Open Institute. In 2012, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission released all of the country’s voter registration sites in a giant PDF. Citizens complained about the difficulty downloading and then identifying their local voter registration sites. The GotToVote project was born when the Code4Kenya fellows scraped the data and developed a website to allow anyone to find their nearest registration site by the click of a button. The project was so successful, it has been subsequently deployed in four countries and adopted by the Malawi government as the official platform for voter registration information.

While Buntwani was a profound conference for highlighting the success stories in open data, it also served to foster the much needed dialogue on the concerns and obstacles of citizen engagement with the use of technology on the continent. The Open Institute has been a galvanizing force in convening the inaugural event and judging from the success of Buntwani, will be a leader and convener of open data for years to come.

You read more about the conference here and be sure to check out their Storify here.

Asante!

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