Transparency & Democracy

This panel considered the central issue of how technology can deliver on its promise of greater transparency and strengthening civil society. On this page, you’ll find notes, interviews and photos from the panel.

Moderator:  William Perrin, Trustee of the Indigo Trust and and Founder of Talk About Local, a public service project to give people in deprived or isolated communities an online voice.

Ken Banks, Founder of FrontlineSMS, which has developed a software platform that enables mass two-way communication by SMS and has been used to strengthen the capacity of NGOs working in the fields of health, credit, law, education and, most recently, community radio.

Owen Barder, Senior Fellow & Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development, which works to reduce global poverty and inequality through rigorous research and active engagement with the policy community.

Tom Steinberg, Director of mySociety, which develops websites that benefit the civic and community aspects of people’s lives. To hear some more about Tom’s work with Fix My Transport, click here.

Philip Thigo, Program Associate, Strategic Partnerships at Sodnet, which promotes civic concerns geared towards the total empowerment of civil society. They have implemented a variety of interventions which are being deployed in Kenya including a budget tracking tool, and Huduma, a site aimed at improving service delivery.


The rapid growth in penetration of the Internet and the mobile phone means that ordinary citizens can increasingly access, contribute to, and share information about their governments, institutions and societies. With as few as 26% of people in Britain believing that their MP is doing a good job, and only 19% trusting journalists to tell the truth, new technologies have become powerful tools through which people can demand accountability, push for institutional transparency and become empowered to improve their communities.

Lessons from the field

The importance of open data standards

  • Open and comprehensive data are the vital starting point to any good social initiative.
  • Ensuring that those data are recorded uniformly is of equal importance. The IATI standard, that requires donors to publish information about aid using common definitions and format, represents an important step toward this. 60% of global aid is now recorded in this way.
  • Data must be presented in an easy to use format (although if you do not publish raw data in any form then it cannot be re-purposed by anyone else).  You may not have a use for the data you have collected, but someone else may.
  • The developed world and the developing world have differing ideas about what constitutes useful data on aid; make sure that the information you produce is appropriate to the audience it is for.
  • Remember that communities are not just passive recipients of data, they are also generators of information.
  • Information must be local and relevant: ‘I haven’t met anyone who has a demand for data; rather, they often just want to know what’s going on’ (Owen Barder)
  • Without shared data, we risk making unwise, unnecessary or overlapping investments.

Information technologies as tools

  • The important change-makers of the past are often the best communicators – they invest time and energy in using the technology of the day to communicate and spread their messages. Grizzly diagrams from the 18th Century of the conditions in slave ships, and the 1984 video of Michael Buerk in Ethiopia are both examples.
  • Giving people access to searchable, useful information on a small scale can empower them to seek bigger changes in their communities. ‘If you believe you can force your local government to fix your street, then you are more likely to believe that you can get your government to change its mind on a big issue’ (Tom Steinberg).
  • Often, this is about ensuring that the technology is controlled and owned by those using it. The success of FrontlineSMS, where the organisation itself does not implement any of the technologies that it distributes, shows that if people are self-motivated to download or purchase software, they will work out how to use it effectively, too. Here, FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks talks about his work:

  • The developing world context is difficult for practitioners, not just citizens. Simple tools are often best.
  • As a donor, you need to be quick – you cannot wait for the case studies. The beauty of the web is that you can see what is working and what is not.


‘Giving people the technology and walk’ – an over-simplified approach? Empowering people to learn how to use the tools themselves is important.  Technologies must, in many cases, be very ‘pick-up able’ (Ken Banks).

Working with or against government? The poor do not have anyone else to turn to but government, which is why NGOs like Sodnet exist to work with government to strengthen institutions. But sometimes, you have to work to open up government data that is withheld – that could mean going against the wishes of government.

Telling people about the ‘right to information’ is not a very effective persuasion technique.  However, there is a gradual increase in public concern about how development money is being spent. Philanthropic foundations are less accountable in the eyes of the public, but need to be aware that this will change.

Foundations – rather than governmental institutions – are in a great position to fix the infrastructure of open data resources. They can invest in the ‘boring’ but important frameworks upon which others can build projects based on accurate information.

If you’d like to find out more about the panel, then all speaker presentation videos are available to view here.

Thanks to Daisy Wakefield, Aphra Sklair and Deanna Laforet of the Institute for Philanthropy for producing these notes.

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