Follow The Money: How citizen action on budgets led to 4 new classrooms and saved the taxpayer $6000

20141008_164503The Open Government Partnership and other similar initiatives have resulted in government data including budgets, contracts and procurement processes being made publicly available in some countries. Elsewhere, civic groups are working hard to access such information, which is crucial if they are to hold government and other authorities to account.

But releasing data in itself isn’t enough.  Community groups, NGOs, journalists and others must be supported to use this information to demand better.

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Open Government – A joke and an ad

Open government doesn’t really lend itself to humour and it’s difficult to see the comedy material in improved public services, oversight and accountability. The best joke I’ve heard on the topic (unfortunately, UK specific) goes something like this:

In the UK, the party of government has something of an identity crisis. They call themselves the Conservatives, but many others call them the Tories. It’s all a bit confusing for people. Maybe they need to rebrand? I’d suggest the Conservatories – Making Parliament more Transparent.

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Drawing Lines across Africa – from the War Office Archive

The following blog post was kindly provided by Nicholas Dykes and the British Library’s War Office Archive.

Most of today’s international boundaries within Africa derive from the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, when the colonial powers divided the region between themselves in order to provide a framework for their own political administrations and for the regulation of trade. Many boundaries were drawn through regions where the detailed geography was unknown, explaining why around thirty per cent of the boundaries in Africa are straight lines. The artificial way in which they were allocated has been criticised for creating arbitrary divisions between communities on the ground, or for preventing the free movement of indigenous nomadic groups, but most of the boundaries have come to be recognised by the African community and persist to this day. Continue reading

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London anti-corruption summit 2016 – basic, achievable, structural steps to tackle corruption

The UK is hosting an anti-corruption summit in 2016.  There are some simple things the summit can aim to achieve that can empower people to detect, prove and tackle corruption on the ground.  In particular the summit could push hard to make available digitally and for free basic laws, budgetary data and company ownership details in countries of concern.  If the UK is serious about this it could deploy British embassies, high commissions etc on the ground to become local in-country hubs of legislative and budgetary transparency, working with local activists to digitise and publish laws and budgets.

At Indigo Trust we support people to improve transparency in their country.  From our grantees, we are conscious that in many countries it is nearly impossible to find out what the current law is, who owns public assets, who owns companies, what public officials are paid and where public money is spent.  Without improving public knowledge of these basic factors tackling corruption is difficult.  In fact it becomes possible only by an elite few with access to special knowledge, limiting the number of useful eyes on the problem.

For instance: a government minister or a judge has a large house, cars, drivers etc and appears to live in some luxury.  What are the absolute basics that say an opposition politician or an aggreived party needs to know to detect whether that person is corrupt or whether the local settlement is that a judge say has a house, a driver, special clothes etc (as they do in the UK) and is highly paid to protect them from being suborned into corruption?  At the very least one needs to know how much public officials are paid, what their budget is, what the law says about their ability to receive gifts, whether they own any companies or physical property and the accounts of those companies.  As well as the general legal framework on corruption (such as common law) and any case law. There are precedents for this sort of work and several examples from around the world. In Argentina, for example, Directorio Legislativo and La Nación have shown how the interests and assets of MPs can be displayed in a standardised, understandable format:

directorio legislativo

At Indigo we use the concept of the ‘accountability stack‘ to sketch out the basic public information one requires to have a functioning civil society – what the laws are, who holds public office, where money is spent, who owns companies, land etc.  In many countries this information is only available in hard copy in state libraries in capital cities that could be several days journey away.  Once this information is digitized, widespread use of mobile phones means it can be disseminated very widely.   This puts it in to the hands of activists across the country and abroad who could deploy it for good – rather than only having it available to special prosecutors etc.

If the UK is looking for examples of initiatives and organisations doing this work around the world, there are plenty. The 2016 summit offers a chance to highlight some of the many approaches taken by organisations like The Constitute Project or African Legal Information Institutes when it comes to publishing legislation or BudgIT’s efforts in Nigeria to make budget data accessible and understandable.

Publishing laws, budgets, company ownership etc digitally and for free (as open data) is dull, un-glamorous stuff.  In itself such publishing is not sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary to empower activists and bring far more eyes to bear on the problem than any number of high level task forces or Ministerial working groups etc could ever achieve.  Making such information available pervasively also allows it to be deployed in instances too small or obscure to be detected at a national level.

Indeed, the sheer lack of glamour of publishing this information and its indirect route to success could be an asset.  Tackling corruption at an inter governmental level is difficult, not least when you are dealing with corrupt regimes who will pay lip service to keep aid and investment flowing but are unlikely to crack down upon themselves.  It’s possible that basic transparency of the sort we set out above is more a palatable first step to a government with corrupt officials than a more direct route.

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Protecting Free Expression

For many human rights or media organisations working across the world, maintaining secure communications and digital technologies against abuse is a difficult task. Distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) are one way of shutting up organisations by making their websites and services unavailable for a period of time. Google is trying out a new tool called Project Shield, which aims to protect NGOs from DDoS attacks. At the moment, you need to apply to be eligible for Project Shield, but any NGO doing sensitive or unwelcome work at risk of DDoS may wish to take a look at the project site for more information.

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Air Quality, Housing and Manchester

Posts about Manchester are few are far between on this blog and for good reason – its relationship to tech for transparency in Africa is tangential at best. Yet the annual Open Data Institute (ODI) Summit, which was held last week in London, has now provided me with the opportunity to talk about some issues and places – air quality, housing and Manchester included – which rarely get a mention on this site. Indeed, one of the strengths of this year’s conference was its focus on issues and topics, rather than the more technical discussions of standards and technologies that can all too often dominate when you put a lot of data and tech enthusiasts together in one place. That’s not to say that standards and technology infrastructure aren’t important – they are the backbone that underlies open data work and without them many of the applications and products I’ll talk about below would be impossible. But as topics for writing about and inspiring people, data standards and infrastructure are a little lacking. It’s like air travel – exotic destinations and gorgeous landscapes inspire people, while only a hardy few are motivated by the fuel efficiency and supreme technical achievements of the plane they used to get there. Continue reading

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OGP Day 3 – the rest of the world

One of the benefits of attending OGP is the exposure it provides to projects, technologies and approaches from around the world. At Indigo we’re relatively familiar with the situation in a number of African countries, but outside Africa our knowledge of open government and open data gets patchier. So it makes sense to dedicate this final OGP post to stories and insights from around the world: Continue reading

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