Tag Archives: Governance

How to Crowdsource Better Governance in Authoritarian States

I was recently asked to review this World Bank publication entitled: “The Role of Crowdsourcing for Better Governance in Fragile States Contexts.” I had been looking for just this type of research on crowdsourcing for a long time and was therefore well pleased to read this publication. This blog posts focuses more on the theoretical foundations of the report, i.e., Part 1. I highly recommend reading the full study given the real-world case studies that are included.

“[The report serves] as a primer on crowdsourcing as an information resource for development, crisis response, and post-conflict recovery, with a specific focus on governance in fragile states. Inherent in the theoretical approach is that broader, unencumbered participation in governance is an objectively positive and democratic aim, and that governments’ accountability to its citizens can be increased and poor-performance corrected, through openness and empowerment of citizens. Whether for tracking aid flows, reporting on poor government performance, or helping to organize grassroots movements, crowdsourcing has potential to change the reality of civic participation in many developing countries. The objective of this paper is to outline the theoretical justifications, key features and governance structures of crowdsourcing systems, and examine several cases in which crowdsourcing has been applied to complex issues in the developing world.”

The research is grounded in the philosophy of Open-Source Governance, “which advocates an intellectual link between the principles of open-source and open-content movements, and basic democratic principles.” The report argues that “open-source governance theoretically provides more direct means to affect change than do periodic elections,” for example. According to the authors of the study, “crowdsourcing is increasingly seen as a core mechanism of a new systemic approach of governance to address the highly complex, globally interconnected and dynamic challenges of climate change, poverty, armed conflict, and other crises, in view of the frequent failures of traditional mechanisms of democracy and international diplomacy with respect to fragile state contexts.”

That said, how exactly is crowdsourcing supposed to improve governance? The authors argues that “in general, ‘transparency breeds self-correcting behavior’ among all types of actors, since neither governments nor businesses or  individuals want to be caught at doing something embarrassing and or illegal.” Furthermore, “since crowdsourcing is in its very essence based on universal participation, it is supporting the empowerment of people. Thus, in a pure democracy or in a status of anarchy or civil war (Haiti after the earthquake, or Libya since February 2011), there are few external limitations to its use, which is the reason why most examples are from democracies and situations of crisis.” On the other hand, an authoritarian regime will “tend to oppose and interfere with crowdsourcing, perceiving broad-based participation and citizen empowerment as threats to its very existence.”

So how can crowdsourcing improve governance in an authoritarian state? “Depending on the level of citizen-participation in a given state,” the authors argue that “crowdsourcing can potentially support governments’ and/or civil society’s efforts in informing, consulting, and collaborating, leading to empowerment of citizens, and encouraging decentralization and democrati-zation. By providing the means to localize, visualize, and publish complex, aggregated data, e.g. on a multi-layer map, and the increasing speed of genera-ting and sharing data up to real-time delivery, citizens and beneficiaries of government and donors become empowered to provide feedback and even become information providers in their own right.”

According to the study, this transformation can take place in three ways:

1) By sharing, debating and contributing to publicly available government, donor and other major actors’ databases, data can be distributed directly through customized web and mobile applications and made accessible and meaningful to citizens.

2) By providing independent platforms for ‘like-minded people’ to connect and collaborate, builds potential for the emergence of massive, internationally connected grassroots movements.

3) By establishing platforms that aggregate and compare data provided by the official actors such as governments, donors, and companies with crowdsourced primary data and feedback.

“The tracking of data by citizens increases transparency as well as pressure for better social accountability. Greater effectiveness of state and non-state actors can be achieved by using crowdsourced data and deliberations* to inform the provision of their services. While the increasing volume of data generated as well as the speed of transactions can be attractive even to fragile-state governments, the feature of citizen empowerment is often considered as serious threat (Sudan, Egypt, Syria,Venezuela etc.).” *The authors argue that this need to be done through “web-based deliberation platforms (e.g. DiscourseDB) that apply argumentative frameworks for issue-based argument instead of simple polling.”

The second part of the report includes a section on Crisis Mapping in which two real-world case studies are featured: the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map & Mission4636 and the Libya Crisis Map. Other case studies include the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) initiative in the Sudan, Participatory GIS and Community Forestry in Nepal; Election Monitoring in Guinea; Huduma and Open Data in Kenya; Avaaz and other emergent applications of crowd-sourcing for economic development and good governance. The third and final part of the study provides recommendations for donors on how to apply crowd-sourcing and interactive mapping for socio-economic recovery and development in fragile states.

Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management

“Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management: Online Dispute Resolution, Governance, Participation” is the title of a new book edited by Marta Poblet. I recently met Marta in Vienna, Austria during the UN Expert Meeting on Croudsource Mapping organized by UN SPIDER. I’m excited that her book has just launched. The chapters are is divided into 3 sections: Disruptive Applications of Mobile Technologies; Towards a Mobile ODR; and Mobile Technologies: New Challenges for Governance, Privacy and Security.

The book includes chapters by several colleagues of mine like Mike Best on “Mobile Phones in Conflict Stressed Environments”, Ken Banks on “Appropriate Mobile Technologies,” Oscar Salazar and Jorge Soto on “How to Crowdsource Election Monitoring in 30 Days,” Jacok Korenblum and Bieta Andemariam on “How Souktel Uses SMS Technology to Empower and Aid in Conflict-Affected Communities,” and Emily Jacobi on “Burma: A Modern Anomaly.”

My colleagues Jessica Heinzelman, Rachel Brown and myself also contributed one of the chapters. I include the introduction below.

I had long wanted to collaborate on a peer-reviewed chapter in which I could combine my earlier study of conflict resolution theory with my experience in conflict early warning and crisis mapping. See also this earlier blog post on “Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping.”  I’ve been a big fan of Will Ury’s approach ever since coming across his work while at Columbia University back in 2003. Little did I know then that I’d be co-authoring this book chapter with two new stellar colleagues. Rachel has taken much of this thinking and applied it to the real world in her phenomenal project called Sisi ni Amni, or “We Are Peace.” You can follow them on Twitter. Jessica now serves on their Advisory Board.

Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?

I recently had the distinct pleasure of participating in a fascination workshop on “Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?” The workshop was organized by the Frei Universität’s program on Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood and co-directed by Professors Gregor Walter-Drop and Steven Livingston. Update: the result of this meeting, and a follow up meeting in 2012 is a book on the topic to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

Throughout the workshop, I kept thinking back to one of my all time favorite books, James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.”  But while I’ve been fully immersed in the field of crisis mapping since the early days (2007), I haven’t really taken the time to think through the deeper implications of these new tools with respect to governance and especially statehood.

My colleague Gregory Asmolov made the link explicit during his excellent presentation on “Russian Wildfires and Alternative Modes of Governance: The Role of Crowdsourcing in Areas of Limited Statehood.” Here’s a summary:

“Because of it’s geographical size, high degree of corruption, and reliance on an extraction economy, governance by government in Russia is often weak and ineffective. Russian political expert Liliya Shevtzova goes so far as to claim that the current regime is an imitation of governance. The 2010 wildfires demonstrated the limited capacity of the state to provide effective emergency response. Information technologies, and crowdsourcing platforms in particular, fulfill the gap of the limited statehood. At the same time, however, the Russian government is also trying to use ICT to increase its claims to effective governance.”

Gregory and his colleagues in Moscow used the Ushahidi platform to create a “Help Map” during the forest fires. They also set up a call center to facilitate communication between those who needed help and those who were offering it. While I knew this had been one of the most stunning examples of citizen-based crowdsourcing initiatives in Russia, I hadn’t thought through the deeper political implications. Not only were citizens helping themselves because of Russia’s limited statehood, they were actually taking over functions of the state, which the map made very explicit. Gregory noted that some Russian citizens even went out to buy firefighting equipment with their own money to combat the fires themselves. Many official fire stations didn’t even have basic equipment needed to respond. In some ways, these efforts laid bare and indeed exposed the Russian regime as an “imitation of governance.”

The Russian government apparently responded by setting up webcams around the country to show that it was in control and still able to monitor the situation. But as this cartoon shows (from Gregory’s presentation), many in Russia were not buying the pretense. See also this article from Christian Science Monitor that Gregory shared: “Russia’s YouTube Democracy is a Sham.

As James Scott notes in his book Seeing Like a State, “the legibility of a society provides the capacity for larger-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.” By legibility, Scott means the ability of the state to index, search, understand and hence manipulate society. But unlike the past, and thanks to free mapping software and crowdsourcing, society is no longer as incapacitated as it used to be. Indeed, thanks to new free and open source mapping technologies, society is able to define it’s own legibility, the contours of which necessarily reveal the limits of statehood.

Moreover, as I have noted before, the resulting map is often not as profound as the social capital generated between the dozens, often hundreds, of people collaborating on a live crisis map. In turn, this social capital facilitates mass collective action. In other words, social capital is fungible. As Scott notes, “this transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map.” In many ways, therefore, the Ushahidi platform is a social-capital and collective-action generating technology.

For more on the Russia Fires projects, I recommend the following links:

The political context of the project: