Published on August 26th, 2014 | by EJC0
Monitorial Citizenship: Projects And Tools
This article was written by Chelsea Barabas, Rahul Bhargava, Heather Craig, Alexis Hope, & Jude Mwenda and originally published at the MIT Center for Civic Media on 25 July, 2014. Republished with permission.
Here at Civic, we have been thinking about ways to promote civic engagement in the periods between elections through monitorial democracy. We’ve noticed that in many places around the world, we have achieved open, fair, and “bad” elections. In democracies, we usually describe elections as one of our primary mechanisms for holding elected officials accountable. If your mayor promises to improve roads and fails, you can elect someone new the next cycle.
The biggest threat to this model of democracy is that elections will be rigged. Election monitoring projects have been successful in policing blatant election fraud through citizen and third-party election monitoring, but the outcomes of these elections are still not closely related to a politician’s performance. We want to extend monitoring activities beyond election cycles, and to use monitoring as a tool for ongoing feedback and dialogue between elected officials and their constituents.
We are currently designing a mobile phone tool called Promise Tracker to enable citizens to track government performance between election cycles. In addition to the mobile phone tool, we are developing a complementary set of monitoring and advocacy practices to help make data collection actionable. Ethan has previously written about the broader goals and history of the Promise Tracker project on his blog.
In this post, we’ll share some of the projects we’ve found in the space of monitorial democracy, as they have served as inspiration for Promise Tracker and have informed our ongoing work to pilot Promise Tracker in two cities in Brazil. We also want to share a more detailed look at the space of data collection tools that could help support citizen monitoring efforts.
Monitoring Government Performance
There are a number of projects that aim to monitor government performance and political promises. MorsiMeter, for example, was a project that evaluated then-recently elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by documenting what he had achieved in his first 100 days, as opposed to his promises. The MorsiMeter project tracked how many promises were in progress, how many promises were achieved, and what the overall satisfaction of the citizenry was for what had been implemented so far. MorsiMeter tracked promises in 5 categories: traffic, security, fuel, bread, and the environment. The evidence for the status of promises came from television, radio, and social networks, and drew from both official and independent sources. At the end of 100 days, the project released a report summarizing in detail the promises for each category.
MumbaiVotes is a political accountability project from the Informed Voter Project, a non-partisan non-profit in Mumbai. “We wish to see India transform from just being the largest democracy to also being an evolved one,” the project website states, with “reliable, unbiased, perceptive and performance-based information.” MumbaiVotes collects comprehensive information from many sources to evaluate both elected representatives and candidates. For example, they offer news coverage analysis to determine promises versus performance, legislative attendance records, criminal record analysis, and more. All research is conducted by Journalism students for academic credit at their respective institutions.
Truth Tracker, a project operating in Pakistan, was launched by UPI Next, a non-profit media development department of the United Press International news agency. Truth Tracker monitors election pledges by politicians, and categorizes them in one of five categories: broken, fulfilled, underway, not started, or compromised. The Truth Tracker Team is comprised of 25 journalists who look at politician’s manifestos, news articles, and election speeches to develop their list of promises. Cine Ce a Promis, a similar project from Romania, crowd-sources evidence of promises and allows for public discussion on forums, where users can propose concrete actions to take in response to unfulfilled promises.
Citizen Monitoring Projects
Citizen monitoring has been the focus of many projects and associated tools, such as Code for America’s Adopt-a-Hydrant program and mySociety’s Fix My Street tool. This technique has been successful to an extent; monitoring is one way to hold administrations accountable for the state of existing infrastructure. However, how do we monitor infrastructure projects that have been proposed, or even promised, but do not yet exist? As an example, a politician could promise during campaign season to build a bridge, or extend a train line to a specific town once they get elected. But after an election, how do citizens hold leaders accountable for these promises? And how can they communicate the pressing infrastructure needs their community may have?
Tools like Safecast, a global project with origins in Japan, mobilize citizens to collect data related to environmental or scientific causes. Safecast aims to monitor radiation by creating a static and mobile (human) sensor network. After the earthquake in Japan on March 11th, 2011 and related disaster at Fukushima, people wanted to create a data set about radiation that was not owned by any government entity and provided more information than was publicly available at that time. The Safecast project is compatible with a number of sensor devices, both open-source hardware and commercial, off-the-shelf tools. Citizen monitors can attach Safecast-compatible units to their cars, collecting data as they drive through their environment. The data is presented on their website on various maps, and is also available for download.
Other projects focus on creating robust, thorough maps through participatory processes. Map Kibera, a project in Kenya, works with community members to create a free and open map of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi. The purpose of this mapping project is to mobilize community members who are part of existing grassroots movements (like women’s groups or savings groups) to collect data about topic areas that the community cares about (such as Water Sanitation and Education) and use that data for lobbying and advocacy. Map Kibera uses a suite of tools which they call “Voice”, combining Ushahidi (a platform that allows users to crowdsource information using text messages, email, Twitter and the web) with open-source, editable maps from OpenStreetMap.
Some civic data collection projects are instigated by governments themselves for the purpose of planning and evaluation. For example, the Nigerian Government partnered with Columbia University’s Earth Institute to equip hundreds of government-hired enumerators with smartphones to visit schools, water points, and health facilities across the country. At these sites, enumerators would take a photo, record the location using GPS, and assess the quality of infrastructure. The purpose of this government-organized monitoring project was to help the government track infrastructure projects being completed by the contractors they hired, and evaluate the country’s progress towards the UN Millenium Development Goals.
Data Collection Tools
There are a number of existing tools designed to facilitate data collection by a group of people. Many of these involve creating customized forms using a web tool and deploying data collection on mobile phones, using either a native data collection app or web app. During our research on Promise Tracker, we came across a number of data collection tools and analyzed these tools according to a number of metrics, such as customizability, open-source or proprietary, technical support, sustainability, and security. These tools include:
Open Data Kit (ODK) is an open-source data collection tool that came out of the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. ODK allows users to create data collection forms using ODK Build (a web-based form builder) and deploy these forms in the field using ODK Collect (an Android App). With ODK, data is collected on ODK Aggregate, and users can output basic visuals from Aggregate, including pie charts, bar charts, and maps. ODK has a strong user base, ranging from public health data collection to citizen science projects. We used ODK during our initial design workshops in Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo, Brazil and found ODK worked well for quickly iterating on forms. ODK Build, however (ODK’s GUI form builder) was a proof of concept for the ODK team and it helps to have some technical skills to use effectively. Others have built on top of the ODK platform, generally to provide more features or create market-specific form builders.
MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab developed LoCast, a tool that allows for “rapid deployment of location-based media platforms.” LoCast is open-source and consists of an Android application and a web application. With LoCast, users can collect data in the field, including photos and video, and then this audio-visual content is mapped onto maps or other online visual interfaces. LoCast is particularly strong at creating rich interactive narrative experiences, and various projects have used LoCast to create custom interactive media experiences. One of these examples is Memory Traces, which showcases stories from the Boston Italian community. While LoCast allows for the creation of strong visual narratives, it’s less oriented towards custom form creation and deployment and the aggregation of large amounts of quantitative data.
Many projects aim to mobilize citizens to collect civic-oriented data. For example, mySociety’s UK-based Fix My Street project is a website that lets citizens report potholes, broken streetlights, and other problems to the local organization responsible for fixing these problems. MySociety has also developed Fix My Street mobile phone applications that allow citizens to collect and report data. Fix My Street is an open-source project, and has had international reach outside of the UK; versions of Fix My Street are currently in use in Norway, New Zealand, Italy, Tunisia, among many other cities and countries. Fix My Street allows citizens to collect data about any topic, but does not allow users to create data collection forms or surveys that they can share with others.
Another data collection platform specifically oriented towards collecting data on water points is Taarifa, an open-source web API being piloted for data collection on water points in Tanzania. Taarifa is a fork of Ushahidi, and they started in 2011 at the London Water Hackathon. Using Taarifa, citizens send updates on infrastructure via SMS (integrated via Twilio), web form, email, or Twitter. The issues are aggregated where they can be followed up on by the appropriate service provider. Ideally, this platforms connects citizen data collectors with decision makers.
LocalData is a software-as-a-service data collection web app that runs in the browser of a smartphone or tablet. LocalData aims to empower non-experts to create custom surveys, share them with a group of fellow data collectors, and create visualizations from the resultant data. LocalData, developed as a project for the Detroit chapter of Code for America in 2012, was used in early pilot tests to document the condition of over 9,000 parcels of land around Detroit. Although LocalData is designed for non-experts and may be appropriate for our target audience, it does not have a hard offline data collection mode as does a technology like ODK, which may prove challenging in regions where many people do not have a data plan for their phones. However, LocalData does provide the ability to print paper surveys with a QR code so they can be scanned and uploaded later.
A sub-section of data collection tools include tools that integrate SMS. SMS can be used to notify a group of people to collect data at a particular time or location, and it can be used as a data submission tool (like Taarifa). Magpi is one such service, as it allows for data collection via SMS and mass notification via SMS. Other SMS based data collection platforms include RapidSMS and FrontlineSMS. In our initial design and development of Promise Tracker, we won’t integrate SMS based data collection, but focus our efforts on creating an easy-to-use form builder for deployment on mobile phones.
While the tools we’ve introduced are tremendously useful in different contexts, we see an opportunity to build a data collection tool that guides citizens through the process of collecting data related to political promises and civic issues. Working with our partners in Brazil, we are scaffolding best practices in data collection, visualization, and advocacy by building process into the tool itself. For example, our form builder will guide community organizers through the process of choosing an issue, defining campaign goals, organizing a network of data collectors, and sharing the results of the campaign in order to make a desired political change. Our aim is to build a data collection tool that is easy to use, works in places with no or limited data connection, and is friendly for new audiences that may find existing tools overwhelming. Currently, we plan to integrate our process-oriented form builder tool with existing mobile data collection frameworks like ODK, to leverage the incredible community and support that surrounds the technology.
If you’re interested in reading more about our ongoing work in Brazil, we have previously written about some of the participants who attended the workshops we conducted there in January 2014, as well as some of our initial reflections on the project.
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Photo: Daniele Zanni