Tag Archives: Theory

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.

Theorizing Ushahidi: An Academic Treatise

[This is an excerpt taken from Chapter 1 of my dissertation]

Activists are not only turning to social media to document unfolding events, they are increasingly mapping these events for the world to bear witness. We’ve seen this happen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond. My colleague Alexey Sidorenko describes this new phenomenon as a “mapping reflex.” When student activists from Khartoum got in touch earlier this year, they specifically asked for a map, one that would display their pro-democracy protests and the government crackdown. Why? They wanted the world to see that the Arab Spring extended to the Sudan.

The Ushahidi platform is increasingly used to map information generated by crowds in near-real time like the picture depicted above. Why is this important? Because live public maps can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Jürgen Habermas. Recall Habermas’s treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.”

Sophisticated political maps have been around for hundreds of years. But the maps of yesteryear, like the books of old, were created and controlled by the few. While history used to be written by the victors, today, journalists like my colleague Anand Giridharadas from the New York Times are asking whether the triangulated crisis map will become the new first draft of history. In the field of geography and cartography, some refer to this new wave of democratized map-making as “neo-geography.” But this new type of geography is not only radically different from traditional approaches because it is user-generated and more par-ticipatory; the fact that today’s dynamic maps can also be updated and shared in near real-time opens up an entire new world of possibilities and responses.

Having a real time map is almost as good as having your own helicopter. A live map provides immediate situational awareness, a third dimension and additional perspective on events unfolding in time and space. Moreover, creating a map catalyzes conversations between activists, raises questions about geographic patterns or new incidents, and leads to more questions regarding the status quo in a repressive environment. To be sure, mass media alone does not change people’s minds.  Recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In addition, the collaboration that takes place when creating a live map can also reinforce weak and strong ties, both of which are important for civil resistance.

The Ushahidi platform enables a form of live-mapped “sousveillance,” which refers to the recording of an activity using portable personal technologies. In many respects, however, the use of Ushahidi goes beyond sousveillance in that it generates the possibility of “dataveillance” and a possible reversal of Bentham’s panopticon. “With postmodernity, the panopticon has been informationalized; what once was organized around hierarchical observation is now organized through decoding and recoding of information” (Lyon 2006). In Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues eloquently that this process of decoding and recoding was for centuries the sole privilege of the State. In contrast, the Ushahidi platform provides a participatory digital canvas for the public decoding, recoding of information and synchronization of said information. In other words, the platform serves to democratize dataveillance by crowdsourcing what was once the exclusive realm of the “security-informational complex.”

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts published in 1990, James Scott distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public interactions that take place between domina-tors and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage” and which the power elites cannot decode. This hidden transcript is comprised of the second step, social conversations, that Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) argue ultimately change political behavior. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, they become conscious of its common status. Borrowing from Habermas, the oppressed thereby become a public and more importantly a synchronized public. In many ways, the Ushahidi platform is a vehicle by which the hidden transcript is collectively published and used to create shared awareness—thereby threatening to alter the balance of power between the oppressors and oppressed.

The new dynamics that are enabled by “liberation technologies” like Ushahidi may enable a different form of democracy, one which arising from “the inability of electoral/representative politics to keep it promises [has thus] led to the development of indirect forms of democracy” (Rosanvallon 2008). More specifically, Rosanvallon indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable not just during elections but also between elections and independent of their results. “The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics  [cf. dataveillance] when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment” (Schmitter 2008, PDF).

These three phases correspond surprisingly well with the three waves of Ushahidi uses witnessed over the past three years. The first wave was reactive and documentary focused. The second was more pro-active and focused on action beyond documentation while the third seeks to capitalize on the first two to complete the rebalancing of power. Perhaps this final wave is the teleological purpose of the Ushahidi platform or What Technology Wants as per Kevin Kelly’s treatise. However, this third wave, the trend toward the “juridificaiton” of democracy bolstered by crowdsourced evidence that is live-mapped on a public Ushahidi platform, is today more a timid ripple than a tsunami of change reversing the all-seeing “panopticon”. A considerable amount of learning-by-doing remains to be done by those who wish to use the Ushahidi platform for impact beyond the first two phases of Rosanvallon’s democracy.

Mobile Banking and the Dictator’s Dilemma: The Piggy Bank Theory of Digital Activism

The term “mobile banking” was not something I expected to hear during Berkeley’s recent Technology and Human Rights conference. But in his closing speech, Eric Brewer briefly mentioned mbanking in the context of repressive regimes shutting down cell phone networks. More specifically, as mobile banking services continue to grow in developing countries, so do the opportunity costs of interrupting access to mobile phone networks. While Eric didn’t refer to the “Dictator’s Dilemma” or Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cat Theory”, he was describing those dynamics.

The Dictator’s Dilemma suggests that repressive regimes are incurring increasing opportunity costs when they decide to cut access to the Internet and/or cell phone networks. The theory suggests that doing so incurs financial and ultimately political costs. The term was coined by Christopher Kedzie who wrote that an increase in the relevance of digital/networked technologies will force repressive regimes to face a dilemma, where they will have to choose between open communications, which encourage economic development, and closed communication, which may help control ‘dangerous’ ideas but may hinder access to the information economy.

Ethan’s “Cute Cat Theory” relates to the notion that most web (and mobile phone) users access online content for entertainment purposes, e.g., to look at pictures of cute cats. If repressive regimes block access to socially entertaining sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc, this may backfire by possibly politicizing a large user base that until then was largely apolitical. In his recent talk at the Share Conference, Sami Gharbia described a related dynamic. The regime’s decision to block social media sites drove a large number of new users to Facebook as this remained one of the only non-censored social networking platforms available to Tunisians. This in turn made it near impossible for the regime to shut access to Facebook without serious blowback.

So how does this relate to mobile banking? As our favorite online encyclopedia states, “mobile banking is a term used for performing balance checks, account transactions, payments, credit applications and other banking transactions through a mobile device. [...] Mobile banking has until recently (2010) most often been performed via SMS or the Mobile Web.” In a recent article entitled “4 Trends Shaping the Emerging ‘Superfluid Economy,'” CNN noted that “within a few short years, we may see billions more people connected to the Internet and capable of participating in economic transactions.” For example, “the ‘unbanked’ are being brought into financial inclusion through innovative services like M-PESA [in Kenya] that enable transfer of money via mobile phones.”

I was surprised to learn that several banks in Iran, such as Parsian, Tejarat, Mellat, Saderat, Sepah, Edbi, and Bankmelli offer mobile banking services. Such services also exist in Bahrain (2008), China (2008), Egypt (2010), Pakistan (2009) and Thailand (2005), for example. Kenya’s M-PESA service was launched in 2007 and now includes more than 12 million users. According to a colleague of mine at the World Bank, the compound annual growth rate in mobile banking over the past four years has been over 90%. So while user figures may be low for some of the more recent initiatives, they may very well increase significantly in just a few years. This may thus increase the opportunity costs of shutting off access to SMS. I call this the “Piggy Bank Theory of Digital Activism” to piggy back on Ethan’s “Cute Cat Theory”.

As noted earlier, however, new mobile banking systems don’t use SMS. Instead, they increasingly use a mobile phone’s USSD functionality, which is more secure. So shutting down SMS would not necessarily impact mbanking transactions. Only if cell phone networks are completely blocked would this impact mobile financial services. That said, it is still unclear whether doing so would necessarily create a dilemma for our hypothetical dictator, even in a country with a relatively large mbanking sector. The financial cost may still be negligible in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, preventing access to mbanking services could backfire if millions of low-income households find their livelihoods at greater risk. We’ve seen that raising taxes on staple goods has prompted serious riots against governments in various countries, for example. So perhaps blocking access to mbanking could create a similar response.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the “Piggy Bank Theory of Digital Activism” is actually valid. On a slightly different note, however, writing about this did prompt the following thought: since USSD functionality is not interrupted when SMS is shut down, could digital activists communicate by exchanging money using mbanking services? For example, transferring $2.3 could be code for meet at location 2 at 3 o’clock. Communicating via numbers does certainly limit the type of information exchanged but the advantage of USSD transactions is that they are secure and encrypted. They also allow for mobility, which is important for digital activism.

ps. many thanks to Fletcher alumni for helping me with the mbanking research!