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The Transparency Policy Project’s dual role as an organizer and participant at the Bridging Transparency and Technology workshop in Glen Cove, New York gave us an opportunity to reflect on this emerging field at many different levels.

Prior to the workshop, our conversations with the NGOs that participated revealed that their organizations were wrestling with similar tensions in their advocacy work. Common themes included:

  • Sustaining public interest in tech-transparency projects beyond the novelty of a first website visit.
  • Targeting tech-transparency projects to citizens, but finding that the media and other NGOs were the primary consumers of information.
  • Weighing the strategic advantages of open data approaches versus embargoing information to generate maximum accountability outcomes.
  • Linking online transparency efforts with offline accountability effects.
  • Finding the right metrics to capture the impact of their work.

These themes helped us shape the “arc” of the Glen Cove event. As Allen Gunn of Aspiration Tech noted in How we are designing the agenda for our Bridging Sessions, we aimed to “match needs to knowledge”.

At the workshop we saw a lot of cross-pollination take place between the advocacy strategies of groups working in natural resources governance and the extractives industries, and all the amazing tech tools that already exist for collecting, displaying and disseminating information. We were inspired by the passion, skill and ingenuity everyone brought to the table, and we are motivated by the potential harbored in proposed collaborations between NGOs and technologists that emerged at the workshop.

Based on workshop discussions and post-event conversations with participants, we put forth three lessons to inform the Bridging effort going forward:

  1. Articulate your strategy. Advocacy groups and technologists alike gained an understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in the growing technology for transparency space. A desire remains to delve deeper into deconstructing different types of strategies for transparency advocacy, and understanding how technology can be a lever in achieving accountability.
  2. Context matters. A lot. Discussions reinforced the importance of understanding the political environment and context within which technology approaches are implemented and advocacy groups operate. A greater diversity of perspectives – particularly from the developing world – would enrich this discussion and help in evaluating the impact of technology for transparency.
  3. The data exists, so hack! The hands-on opportunity to “hack” transparency projects and demonstrate how existing technology tools and approaches can be implemented quickly and effectively was a valuable experience for participants. Interactions between technologists and NGOs that lead to concrete projects and outcomes must be supported and sustained.

As we move forward with the Bridging initiative, the Transparency Policy Project will engage the Glen Cove groups in reflecting together on how to implement transparency and accountability projects. We are also keen to develop more innovative, and tailored approaches to measuring the impact that this work is having in advancing transparency and accountability. By articulating strategies, understanding context, and hacking projects, we hope to sharpen our collective understanding of how to best leverage technology tools in improving outcomes for arguably some of the most wicked problems on this planet.

Francisca Rojas, research director, Transparency Policy Project (original post)

A much talked-about innovation in public policy has been the push to achieve greater transparency and accountability through open government strategies, where the public has access to government information and can participate in co-producing public services. At the Transparency Policy Project we have been investigating the dynamics behind one of the most successful implementations of open government: the disclosure of data by public transit agencies in the United States. In just a few years, a rich community has developed around this data, with visionary champions for disclosure inside transit agencies collaborating with eager software developers to deliver multiple ways for riders to access real-time information about transit.

Transit agencies have long used intelligent systems for scheduling and monitoring the location of their vehicles. However, this real-time information had previously been available only to engineers inside agencies, leaving riders with printed timetables and maps, that, at best, represent the stated intentions of an complex system that can be disturbed by traffic, weather, personnel issues and even riders themselves.

Recognizing the need to be able to access this information on-the-go and in digital format, Bibiana McHugh of Portland’s TriMet agency worked with Google in 2006 to integrate timetable data into Google Maps, eventually becoming Google Transit. McHugh went further, publicly releasing TriMet’s operations data: first the static timetables, and eventually real-time, dynamic data feeds of vehicle locations and arrival predictions. Local programmers have responded with great ingenuity, building 44 different consumer-facing applications for the TriMet system, at no cost to the agency.

Transit Apps and Ridership by City

Other transit agencies have adopted this open data approach with varying outcomes. The most successful agencies work closely with local programmers to understand which data is in demand, troubleshoot and improve the quality of the data feeds. Programmers also make the link between end users and transit agencies by filtering up comments from apps users. This iterative feedback loop relies on a champion within the agency to build strong relationships with the local developer community. Of the five transit agencies we studied, Portland’s TriMet and Boston’s MBTA exemplify this approach and have generated the highest ratio of apps per transit rider (see table). Meanwhile, the most reluctant agency to adopt open data, Washington DC’s WMATA, only has eleven applications serving its customers.

The number of apps built by independent developers is important, indicating the variety of options riders have in selecting which interfaces (mobile, desktop, map-based, text, audio) and platforms best fit their needs to access transit information. As we have learned from our research on what makes transparency effective, simply providing information is not enough. Format and content matter, and should address the needs of a targeted audience. What we have seen in our study of transit transparency is that local programmers have been the critical intermediaries, taking raw data and generating a variety of information tools that transit agencies could not have imagined on their own. For other open government initiatives to spark this level of innovation and public benefit, they must identify their audience of information intermediaries and foster those relationships.

Francisca Rojas, research director – Transparency Policy Project
Original post on Google’s Policy by the Numbers blog (January 27, 2012)

Pedro Daire is in charge of technology for Chile’s Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente (“Smart Citizen”), a leader in employing technology for transparency in Latin America. Notable projects include Vota Inteligente to monitor the Chilean parliament, the Freedom of Information portal Acceso Inteligente, and most recently, a conflict of interest tracker that shines a light on parliamentarians, the legislation they support, and their personal investments. I spoke with Pedro via Skype on December 16, 2011 to capture his reflections on the Bridging Transparency and Technology (TABridge) workshop (which TPP participated in as well) held in Glen Cove, New York in early December. Pedro’s answers to my questions were so insightful on the matter of bridging tech and transparency that I decided to share a condensed version of our interview through this blog post.

Francisca: What was most valuable about participating in the TABridge event to the work you are doing and want to do in the future?

Pedro:    The most useful insight from the event was learning from the experiences of Kert Davies of Greenpeace and Heather White from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). They have been working with information to advance their advocacy work since before technology became such a powerful tool, and a result, they really know how to use information in strategic ways. They use technology as an amplifier, as a tool, and not and end in itself. In contrast, for younger people like me, technology is content, something in and of itself.

That insight, combined with the imperative to have an explicit theory of change behind our projects, an idea which Archon Fung guided us through at the workshop, is very useful for us. We are planning to analyze every project we do through the theory of change framework to guide our strategy and planning.

Did the event give you new ideas as to the role of technology in transparency efforts?

We have a very creative and innovative team at Ciudadano Inteligente, which means that we often have too many creative ideas! Our challenge is implementing those ideas and thinking about the impact chain of each project. We are very adept at developing tools for transparency, but don’t think about how that tool will be used to change or promote our end goals. We are too often focused on the tool and assume people will react to the information in impactful ways. But that’s not true. What I learned in the event is to attach a cause behind each tool.

We try to actively engage people with the information we provide, but we haven’t made a point to teach them what the next step is for them in terms of mobilizing around the information. With the conflict of interest tool for example, we should have considered incorporating an element to mobilize people to hold their legislators accountable from the beginning, but instead, we improvised a last-minute online petition when we realized this could be useful. I’ve come to see that facilitating these interactions is very important because otherwise, we have this citizen, but she’s only a spectator of the information. Only the most motivated people will react to the information. We need to say “hey, you’ve seen the info, now you should share this with five people,” and that’s much more than what we’ve done so far.

What should the TABridge program focus on as we work to support this network of practice?

The group that gathered at Glen Cove is like a ‘dream team’ of NGOs! Everyone who was there is very capable, enthusiastic and smart. The shared sense of purpose that we felt there – knowing that we are all concerned about the same issues and looking for the best ways to impact change – is very powerful. But there is risk that we’ll forget that we’ve been together thinking about how to use tech for transparency in strategic ways.

We need the organizers to keep reminding us that we have common issues, challenges and problems. I don’t think they should be helping me to implement projects, however. I didn’t expect to return to Chile from the workshop with solutions. Rather, I expected to come home with doubts. We have already been successful with our work here in Chile, but it’s risky for us to keep holding those minor successes as triumphs. The main value of TABridge is to help us reflect on our work.

Francisca Rojas, research director – Transparency Policy Project (original post)

As part of our research with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative on how groups are using technology to enable more effective forms of transparency and accountability, we have come across the growing field of “citizen science” (also sometimes called “civic science” or “open science”). This do-it-yourself (DIY), grassroots approach to data collection is facilitated by the increasing availability of everyday electronic devices – particularly cell phones – which today can be easily equipped with cheap sensors to capture data on ambient conditions.

Here I highlight two groups that are developing tools and methodologies for communities to use in monitoring their environments: the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) in Somerville, Massachusetts and the Living Environments Lab at Carnegie Mellon.

PLOTS is known for their grassroots mapping initiatives where they produce low-cost, high-resolution aerial imagery by building and deploying digital cameras attached to balloons and kites. In the Gulf Coast, for instance, this simple and inexpensive approach has facilitated community-led monitoring of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is more detailed and frequent than what is captured by satellites. This independent dataset of images intends to track the environmental impact of the oil spill over time as a means to hold BP accountable in its restoration efforts. The grassroots mapping approach to impact transparency could also be applied to monitoring other types of threats like deforestation and land disputes. More recently, PLOTS has been deploying balloons to document and contest the size of public protests in Santiago, Chile (in partnership with the Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente) and at #OccupyWallStreet. All of their work is open source, and on their website you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to build your own tools for civic monitoring.

While PLOTS has mostly focused on documenting the view from above, the Living Environments Lab works on arming citizen scientists with cheap sensors to create a distributed network of ambient data collectors. An early experiment in Accra, Ghana aimed to measure air pollution from automobiles by recruiting taxi drivers to collect this data with their mobile phones. The data revealed not only that air quality varies greatly throughout the city by time of day and location, but also showed that when citizens have access to this type of dynamic information, it can effect behavioral change to minimize exposure to harm. Researchers were surprised to learn that the taxi drivers who participated in the experiment were altering their routes so as to minimize their exposure to areas of the city with high levels of pollution.

The value for transparency and accountability in the approaches discussed above lie in their ability to 1) distribute and democratize data collection in affordable and scalable ways and, 2) to close out the feedback loops of information. A challenge nevertheless exists in determining how representative these sources of data are in capturing problems or risks, and by extension, to what extent this community-generated data is actionable.

Francisca Rojas, Postdoctoral Fellow – Transparency Policy Project (original post)