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Earlier this week, I and two of Indigo’s trustees attended the joint DFID, Omidyar Network and Wired Magazine OpenUp! conference. The purpose of the conference was to explore how tech is – and can – lead to more accountable and responsive governments and increase citizen participation and engagement. It was a genuinely fascinating event that brought together NGOs, government officials, technologists and geeks. If you weren’t able to attend the event in person, I’d highly recommend you take a look at the videos from the day (if you’re short of time, I’d recommend Tim O’Reilly’s video and the session on Improving Service Delivery).

If you think a conference dedicated to big datasets, government communications and visualisation techniques sounds a little dry, then you’re not alone. Most people use technology predominantly for entertainment – just think Angry Birds, Sky Sports or Facebook. Yet data that has been collected by government also occupies a central place in our lives – it informs the decisions taken by our hospitals and schools, it provides the basis for every weather forecast you’ll probably ever watch and it dictates the price you’ll pay for home, contents and car insurance. On a day-to-day basis, though, most people are interested in what might be termed ‘functional data’. Tim O’Reilly made the point that people care about things like the potholes in their roads or want to know when the bus will arrive or what the weather will be like on Monday. Opening up this sort of data so that people can play with it and turn it into something meaningful and useful to people’s everyday lives is critical.

More broadly, however, there are other kinds of data which are crucial to ensuring greater accountability and transparency of government. Indigo’s trustee, Will Perrin, recently wrote about the concept of ‘accountability stacks’, that is the basic building blocks of government accountability. In a country where the ordinary citizen can’t access information on how active or effective their MP is, it’s difficult to know which way to vote at the next election (or, indeed, to know whether it’s even worth voting at all). Likewise, if you have no way of knowing whether your Prime Minister also sits on the board of a prominent company, how can institutions like the media uncover corruption scandals? By ensuring that certain key datasets are available and accessible, citizens, journalists and campaigners can begin to take the first steps towards uncovering corruption and graft in their own countries.

Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza had the following sage advice to those thinking of developing digital tools to opening up government:

  1. Does an app, site or tool do something that you really want? If not, why do you think anybody else would use it?
  2. People drive change, not technology. But enhancing people’s ability to use technology can inspire them.
  3. Clear hypotheses and theories of change are necessary. You need to understand the constraints and be realistic about what you can achieve.

    Success may not always look as you expected

  4. Method matters – test and iterate. Build rigorous evaluation methods into your project.
  5. Results matter, but it’s important for funders to take risks and realise results might not always happen.

Rakesh and Tim were just two of many great speakers on the day. Gustav Praekelt, Jay Bhalla, Anne Jellema, Ethan Zuckerman and many others were present and gave some stimulating talks. The event also saw the launch of Making All Voices Count, a fund to support innovation, scaling-up and research in the use of technology to support open government and citizen engagement. DFID Secretary of State, Justine Greening, committed her department to doubling up its efforts on the use of tech in its work and also tasked all of its partners with publishing their data in line with the International Aid Transparency Initiative.