The International team recently had an opportunity to meet with Mzalendo founders in Kenya. As you likely know, Mzalendo is the Kenyan Parliamentary Monitoring site similar to TheyWorkForYou which mySociety has helped re-build since June 2011 with support from the Omidyar Network.
Being in Nairobi gave us the opportunity to meet with some of the organisations who provide information that helps power Mzalendo.com. These included the National Taxpayers Association , whose detailed research into the usage of Constituency Development Funds (CDF) has been invaluable in enabling us to create scorecards on the site. The scorecards are used to rate MPs based on a number of criterion including (pre-elections) how they had overseen the spending of CDF funds in their constituency, their accessibility to their constituents and contributions to debate in Parliament as presented in the Hansard. We also met with the UN/DESA representative behind the www.bungeni.org initiative that has been working with several African parliaments interested in using ICT to open them up to the public.
We also attended the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Africa regional meeting in Mombasa. This two day conference brought CSOs and government officials from 13 African countries (plus a few from other parts of the world) together to discuss how open government works in Africa and to share experiences and recommendations. For mySociety the conference was a chance to meet CSOs and government officials from other countries in Africa to see how they are working towards openness in different ways.
Paul, (pictured gesturing wildly) our Head of International projects,
spoke briefly on the 2nd day on various topics such as making proceedings of parliaments and legislatures available in usable formats (a big theme for us across all the parliamentary monitoring sites we have helped create) and voting records. On the subject of voting, we managed to spark some debate, as the previous evening Kenyan MPs had voted to raise their salaries. This makes them the highest paid government officials in the world comparative to the average national salary.
It was good to finally put names to faces for some people we’ve been working with remotely, like Selima (pictured above in the pink top) from marsoum41.org, the Alaveteli inspired platform based in Tunisia. Selima raised some really interesting points about how important, and difficult, it is to keep momentum going after post-revolution elections.
We also met Gilbert Sendugwa from the Africa Freedom of Information Centre to talk about the potential of using Alaveteli platforms further across Africa. We should be discussing a pilot in one or two countries (yet to be decided!) which will begin in August 2013. That’s pretty exciting for us! About eight African countries have Freedom of Information (FOI) laws but their current implementation is weak by international standards.
Finally I wanted to share a story from Robert Hunja that really brought home to me the importance of local knowledge and consultation in any project, be it government- or CSO-run. (It’s paraphrased as my scribing isn’t fast enough to keep up with talking)
“Outside my father’s house runs a badly maintained road, but the local council didn’t have enough money to pave all of it, so they paved only sections. When I asked my father if he, or any other local residents had been consulted, he told me he was surprised he hadn’t been. He said if they had been consulted, and told money was limited, they wouldn’t have recommended paving only sections, but concentrating on a specific area of the road that had been the cause of many accidents.” Now the dangerous part of the road remains unrepaired, and the paved sections will cause problems as the disintegrate over time.
Overall the conference allowed an exchange of ideas which will hopefully
lead toward greater collaboration between governments and CSOs in Africa.
Also, though we may not have seen lions or giraffes, some local monkeys did express an interest in joining the conference, if only during lunch time!
Note: This post is a work in progress, I need your help to improve it, especially with knowledge of non-English sites
I was recently in Washington DC catching up with mySociety’s soul-mates at the Sunlight Foundation. As we talked about what was going on in the field of internet-enabled transparency, it came clear to me that there are now more identifiable categories of transparency website than there used to be.
Identifying and categorising these types of site turns out to be surprisingly useful. First, it can help people ask “Why don’t we have anyone doing that in our country?” Second, it can help mySociety to make sure that when we’re planning ahead we don’t fail to consider certain options that be currently off our radar. Also, it gives me an excuse to tell you about some sites that you may not have seen before.
Anyway, enough preamble. Here they are as I see them – please give me more suggestions as you find them. As you can see there’s a lot more activity in some fields than others.
1. Transparency blogs & newspapers – At the technically simplest, but most manual labour-intensive end of the scale is sites, commercial and volunteer driven, whose owners use transparency to help them to write stories. Given almost every political blog does this a bit, it can be hard to name specific examples, but I will note that Heather Brooke is the UK’s pre-eminent FOI-toting journalist/blogger, and we’ve just opened a blog for our awesome volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow to show their FOI skills to an as-yet unsuspecting public.
2. What Politicians do in their parliaments – These sites primarily include lists of politicians, and information about their primary activities in their assemblies, such as voting or speaking. This encompasses mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com, Rob McKinnon’s one man labour of love TheyWorkForYou in NZ, Italy’s uber-deep OpenPolis.it (6 layers of government, anyone?), Germany’s almost-un-typable Abgeordnetenwatch, Romania’s writ-wielding IPP.ro, Josh Tauberer’sGovTrack.us, plus the bonny bouncing babies OpenAustralia and Kildare Street (Ireland). Of special note here are Mzalendo (Kenya) who unlike everyone else, can’t reply on access to a parliamentary website to scrape raw data from, and Julian Todd’s UNDemocracy (International), that has to fight incredible technical barriers to get the information out.
3. Databases of questions and answers posed to politicians – These sites let people post politicians questions, and the publish the questions and answers. The Germans running Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch) seem to have had considerable success here, with newspapers citing what politicians say on their site. Yoosk has some politicians in the UK on it, too.
4. Money in politics – This comes in two forms, money given to candidates (MAPlight), and money bunged by politicians to their favourite causes (Earmark watch). In the UK, as far as I know, the Electoral Commission’s database remains currently unscraped, perhaps because the data is so ungranular.
5. Government spending – where the big money goes. In the US the dominant site is FedSpending.org, and in the UK we have ukpublicspending.co.uk.
6. Websites containing bills going through parliament, or the law as voted on – This includes the increasingly substantial OpenCongress in the US which saw major traffic during the Health Care debates, and the UK government’s own Acts database and Statute Law Database. Much of the legal database field, however, remains essentially private.
7. Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services – Our own sites lead the way here: FixMyStreet‘s public problem reports and WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive are both created by people who aren’t primarily using the site to enrich it – they’re using it to get some other service.
8. Election websites – These come in many forms, but what they have in common is their desire to shed light on the positions and histories of candidates, whether incumbents or new comers. The biggest beast here is Stemwijzer (Netherlands), probably in relative terms the most used transparency or democracy site ever. However these sites are popular in several places, the big but highly labour intensive VoteSmart (US), Smartvote.ch (Switzerland), plus others. mySociety is shortly to start to recruit constituency volunteers to help with our take on this problem, keep an eye on this blog if you want to know more.
9. Political document archives – This is a new category, now occupied by Sunlight’s Partytime archive for invitation to political events, and TheStraightChoice, Julian Todd and Richard Pope’s wonderful new initiative for archiving election leaflets and other paper propoganda.
10. Bulk data – Online transparency pioneer Carl Malamud doesn’t do sites, he does data. Big globs zipped up and made publicly available for coders and researchers to download and process. The US government has now stepped into this field itself with Data.gov, doubtless soon to be followed by data.gov.uk.
Please don’t shoot me if I’ve missed anything here, the world is a big place. But I thought that was a useful and interesting exercise, and I hope you’ll both find it useful, and help me improve it too. Comment away.