Technology for Transparency Network looks at gov 2.0 worldwide

Those of us interested in government 2.0 issues have seen a plethora of events, articles and books spring up in the last three plus years. But most of them have been focused in on the projects going on in the US and UK. CivSource spoke with David Sasaki, Outreach Director for Global Voices about government 2.0 worldwide and the Technology For Transparency Network.

On March 1, the Technology For Transparency Network, a project funded by Global Voices and Rising Voices published the first in a series of case studies about transparency projects underway in China, Kenya, India, Mexico, Zimbabwe, and Brazil. The series is the culmination of a three-month project involving eight researchers and eight research reviewers from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe who will document 40 case studies of technology projects that aim to promote transparency, accountability, and civic engagement in areas of the world with less internet penetration and different approaches to governing.

Sasaki described how the project originated, “for the past couple years many of us at Global Voices have wanted to research systematically what if any effect citizen media has on governance, especially in countries outside of North America and Western Europe. There is already a lot of attention and research focused on transparency and “government 2.0″ projects in North America and Europe, but we weren’t able to find much research elsewhere, especially in countries with developing democracies. We were approached by two funders – Open Society Institute’s Information Program and Omidyar Network’s Media, Markets & Transparency initiative – to help them gain a greater understanding of technology projects that promote transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. They specifically asked us to look at Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe so we hired researchers based in all of those locations who are fluent in the languages spoken there. It is up to those researchers to choose which projects in which countries they find most compelling, innovative, and influential.”

Sasaki also noted that in addition to their own research work, the project platform is open for additional submissions. “We have a standard template questionnaire that anyone can fill out. After submitting their answers to those basic questions we then followup to check their responses and ask further questions.” He highlighted a recent submission from Tel Aviv that transformed the Tel Aviv municipal budget from a PDF to a spread sheet format with data visualizations.

So far, the reaction to the case studies has been very positive. However, Sasaki was quick to point out that while a positive reaction is always good, the optimism surrounding these projects may be a few steps ahead of the actual impact.

“The reaction to the case studies we have published has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. In fact, the majority of the reactions to the project that I have seen so far are a bit too enthusiastic for my taste. With good reason, there is always a lot of optimism about the role that technology can play in giving power to the everyday citizen to hold their leaders accountable, and a lot of that optimism comes out in the reactions to the case studies we have published so far. But what we’re really trying to identify is where these projects have had a concrete, measurable impact on civic participation, better governance, and increased accountability. So far we have identified a lot more potential than actual impact. I think that most of these projects are still several years away from building the influence and types of relationships necessary to hold public officials and institutions more accountable.”

When asked about what audiences in the US and elsewhere can take from these case studies in terms of practical applications, Sasaki noted that despite broad interest in the US there is still much to learn from other countries. “From what I’ve seen I think that Brazil has done a better job than the United States at creating a truly grassroots movement to use the internet to build civic participation that holds their leaders accountable. They have come up with very innovative and successful projects like Cidade Democratica and Adote Um Vereador.”

As for the future of the Network after the final case study is released, Sasaki and his colleagues hope that people everywhere will continue to visit the site and treat it as a hub for organizing and reporting back on civic engagement projects worldwide.

The Network’s organizers are also planning to address the formal future of the Network at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit on May 6th. At the summit, the Network will present their final research and make recommendations about future applications of technology in transparency initiatives. The Network also plans to make a final and comprehensive report available after the summit.