New tech offers new opportunities – but should learn from old lessons

14 November 2012
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There was palpable energy in the room at OpenUp! yesterday – a London conference hosted by DFID, Omidyar Network and WIRED magazine, that put self-proclaimed technology geeks next to transparency, accountability and development specialists.

While I’m no expert on the uses of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), I think they offer at least two important contributions to debates on transparency and accountability.

First, crowdsourcing has the potential to better manage information. ICTs are not just about making information more easily available. Efforts to develop crowdsourcing approaches which pull together information from many channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web, offer new ways to process and manage information.

For me, one of the most exciting initiatives presented was CrowdVoice, which collates related photos, videos and posts for real time monitoring of protests, including in the Middle East. It is similar to the model developed by Ushahidi, which used crowdsourcing for real time monitoring of election violence in Kenya and has since advised others, including helping develop citizen storm maps for Hurricane Sandy in the US that provided location reports on power outages, damage, debris, and flooding. Being able to make sense of a whole range of information, available through mobile and internet technology, can help us make far better use of that information than has been possible to date.

Second, collective action is centre stage in using ICTs effectively, just as ODI-hosted research has found in relation to broader politics and governance issues. While traditional discussions of transparency and accountability in developing countries see increasing citizens’ demand as one way to ‘fix’ problems in the supply of public goods and services, new forms of more interactive media recognise that what matters is the quality of relationships and networks.

In fact, the real benefits of new ICTs are their ability to support collective action, greater collaboration, and new partnerships. Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza pointed to the importance of facilitating or brokering collective action as a key lesson from Twaweza’s work to improve service delivery in East Africa by sharing information and increasing citizens’ agency and networks.

Debates on public sector reform in industrialised countries are also throwing up new ideas on the significance of relationships and networks. An IPPR report, out this week, looks at what it calls ‘the relational state’ – defined, in a chapter by Geoff Mulgan as rewiring the state to improve relationships, particularly the relationships between the state and the people.

Concepts like collective action, relationships and networks are nothing new in themselves. But their prominence in debates on how to strengthen institutions and improve governance, whether in the UK or Uganda, deserves attention. And new tech approaches might be leading the way in showing how this can be done.

So, this is exciting stuff. But, tech inspired transparency and accountability initiatives are not delivered in a vacuum. Another striking aspect of the OpenUp! event was the level of open and honest sharing on what has worked – and what hasn’t. What emerges is the extent to which the selection of tech tools needs to be matched to the nature of the underlying political and social context (and types of incentives, institutions, and relationships in existence). This should draw on a growing body of work that seeks to better understand how governance and accountability issues affect the delivery of public goods and services.

A good place to start might be harnessing new technologies themselves to help support this. Could we start to crowdsource evidence on the lessons learned by these initiatives, to help build and share knowledge across organisations and to bring these to wider audiences?

This publication is an output of the following project: Achieving sustainable governance transitions