Appropriating Technology for Accountability (VI). Take-away thoughts

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

John Gaventa, IDS

The importance of history.

In the past, most of the things that people learned from projects would get lost, forgotten. Now, there’s so many ways to report information and share knowledge that it makes it more likely that people will be able to retrieve this knowledge and apply it to their upcoming projects.

The scale of technological change is phenomenal. This is a unique moment in history… or isn’t it? Or is it just a transitional moment in history?

The current context.

Technology shapes society, and society shapes technology. But this is happening for good and for bad: new technologies are also empowering and giving voice to criminal networks.

Technology has increased the questioning of what constitutes legitimate information, legitimate voice, legitimate data… and about data, where does it come from, whose is it, etc. How do algorithms work… are algorithms legitimate voice? Are they good, bad or it depends? How do we trust new voices, human or automatic?

Technology is giving voice and it is destroying voice. Is voice truly voice or is it the echoing of what powerful people want us to hear?

How change happens.

Would we had had this meeting five years ago, would our statements, conclusions, doubts have been the same? What difference does technology make?

What is going on with society, is it due to technology? Is it not? Is our understanding of the role of technology influenced by the social context? Is it influenced by technology or the other way round?

Transparency is enabling, but it is not enough. But, maybe, if we add some other things to technology — i.e. inclusion, politics, etc. — then maybe yes there is an ongoing and transformative change.

How we think change might happen in the future?

Is there a dichotomy about technology? Or can we harness the potential of technology while being aware of its risks? It may not be “either or”, but both.

We have to work both ends of the equation.

We have to be the equation.

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)

Appropriating Technology for Accountability (V). Tech as part of the mix (II)

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

Breakout session: Tech as part of the mix

How can offline and online activities be better integrated?

Try not to think about online vs. offline. Try to think about the people behind participation, as the people are the same and won’t change depending on the platform or modality of participation.

An actor — facilitator, reporter — can transpose what happens offline into a digital platform and, at the same time, this facilitator or reporter can monitor what goes on online and transpose it to offline debates. The role of this bridge-actor is thus crucial.

Try not to duplicate efforts and/or tasks.

What online or offline activities can help overcome the risks of exclusion?

Combine traditional technology (e.g. radio) with newer one (e.g. social media) to keep a balance of channels and platforms.

The role of intermediaries or infomediaries becomes very important for those who cannot access some specific channels, not only online ones, but especially those.

Use both channels — online and offline — is the surest bet.

Sometimes the choice between offline and online might not be straightforward. Where some people would see online as a driver of exclusion, some might see online as safer (e.g. in violent environments where people can be physically abducted by totalitarian regimes) or more comfortable (e.g. for people that are shy or value anonymity). So, we should not consider ex-ante that offline equals old and inefficient and that online equals exclusion for some marginalized. Context matters.

Online tools should just be a part of a greater toolset, and chose the tools according to needs.

There’s a blind spot in most projects where ideology is taken as non-existent, while this is mostly not true. Technology is not neutral, and neither is the people that design any kind of participatory project: who are the beneficiaries of a project, who are the managers, what are the priorities (goals, outputs, outcomes, etc.)

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)

Appropriating Technology for Accountability (IV). Tech as part of the mix (I)

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

Tech as part of the mix
Framer: Duncan Edwards

Technologies that work to channel or amplify voice may increase the ability of government to ‘hear’ citizens more loudly or clearly, but are not necessarily sufficient to lead to ‘listening’ or responsiveness.

Where there is willingness and commitment tech can assist in gathering, aggregating and synthesising voices and data and helping governments to be more attuned to needs and the realities of service provision and receipt.

Tech may offer different opportunities across the various sites and levels of government.

Technologies may have a role in strategies to gain greater commitment to responsiveness on the part of government where it doesn’t exist already.

The internal dynamics and politics of the state and of bureaucracies are important background conditions.

The ‘social design’ of tech for accountability programming needs to fully address issues of capacity and agency; of citizen and state groupings, and of individuals and organisations.

Technologies can be used effectively to support processes of empowerment; the building of agency, sense of self-worth and confidence, and the status that comes from having experiences recognised and validated.

How far tech contributes to the building of individual and collective capacities depends very heavily on how it is integrated in to wider processes and activities.

We can say that forms of intermediation and interlocution are essential to making a tech-for-accountability effort work.

Some of this intermediation is about connecting the online and digital with offline processes. This is particularly important where the aim is citizen mobilisation.

These processes are even more important given the tendency of tech-enabled feedback mechanisms to individualise and disaggregate experiences and voices.

Although we have known for some time that intermediation and infomediation is key to making tech for transparency and advocacy projects work effectively, it seems that these roles are not sufficiently planned in too many projects and that in particular those that can effectively connect technologists with communities, or intermediaries who are connected to communities, are not engaged at an early enough stage.

Unchecked, digital processes further exclude the already marginalised on the basis of income and material resources, as well as distance from urban centres, gender norms, literacy, language barriers, and so on.

Without addressing inequalities in access we risk creating a world where only online or digitised voices count.

Used in certain ways, tech can be part of processes that reduce marginalisation by ensuring that less-heard voices are heard and given legitimacy.

Technology provides some spaces for those experiencing certain marginalisations —for example LGBT voices— to make connections.

Legitimacy is a factor across the ecosystem of actors – for communities and citizen, intermediaries and NGOs, and for state actors.

Different types of data are seen as more and less legitimate —citizen-generated data is often de-legitimised once it reaches governments, but this is potentially less the case when it has entered ‘invited spaces’ created by governments— for example feedback or grievance logging platforms.

The real or perceived risks of surveillance and reprisal —and distrust in the supposed anonymity of tech systems —presents a significant barrier to many citizens engaging with these technologies and new platforms.

One of the roles identified for intermediaries is building trust; between actors, in the data itself, and in the messages or narratives drawn from it.

Host: Ellen Pieterse, Independent/MAVC
Panellists: Koketso Moeti, Amandla.mobi; Tabitha Hrynick, freelance researcher; Tiago Peixoto, World Bank; Ismael Peña-López, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

(what follows are my own points, as I could not take notes from my co-panellists’ contributions)

The Internet does not add up, it just multiplies. That is, the socio-economic status of the people using the Internet matters the final outcomes of Internet usage.

In this sense, weaving social tissue is key to level the ground and have strong foundations upon which to build any kind of participatory process. On the other hand, this social tissue enables “bridges” between traditional participation and online or technopolitical participation. Without a thick social tissue, these layers may evolve independently one from another.

But these “bridges” do not happen just because: facilitation is very important for the spreading of ideas and for deliberation to take place. Thus, it is a matter of how technology enables wider and stronger social tissue by making weak ties more relevant, by identifying emergent critical masses, and contributing to the self-awareness of critical masses and trends and patterns.

Technology makes it possible to “hack” the system, circumvent (non-functional) democratic institutions and provide new ways to participate even where there were none. Though it is true that true information is difficult to gather due to too much “noise” (e.g. “fake news”), it is also true that technology makes it easier to “unmask” false information.

Accountability is a matter of nearness. This is why we are witnessing a rise of municipalism. This could even lead to a network of participatory cities if citizens believe that national politics are out of reach, but are nevertheless able to “synchronize” local politics in a wide geographic area. The combination of citizens weaving networks easily while officials succeeding in making them formal and institutionalizing them can be a powerful driver for change.

It is important to note the key role of officials, not (as much) politicians. When we speak about intermediaries between citizens and politicians, it is possible that some of these intermediaries actually are officials from the government.

There is a devolution of sovereignty going on. Successful e-participation projects usually have some devolution of sovereignty embedded in them. This devolution is not only in decision-making, but also in the very same design of the project: meta-projects about the governance of the e-participation project are crucial for its social acceptance and sustainability.

Devolution of sovereignty comes with a requisite: democratic culture. Thus, not only technology skills but democratic or participation skills are required for e-participation projects to succeed. And, again, the existing social tissue becomes more relevant, as it is by leveraging the existing social tissue (e.g. civil society organizations) that the potential of participation can be realized.

This democratic culture or skills can be improved with how to’s, shared procedures and protocols, with the work of facilitators (e.g. officials) or intermediaries (e.g. local leaders and civil society organizations.

But, are these projects really empowering citizens and, especially, minorities? Yes, they are. And we find evidence in:

  • Minorities not feeling represented by civil society organisations.
  • Minorities whose ideas or needs have low momentum or no critical mass.
  • Minorities that usually could not overcome barriers to participation.

On the other hand, technology is not only to empower minorities, but can also be used to boost traditional channels and actors, or be the core of a knowledge management strategy or device.

There is an ongoing debate on whether improving traditional ways of participation or setting up new revolutionary or disruptive ways.

  • Usually, improving the traditional ways works best.
  • But, an avant-garde of pioneers is needed to advance and innovate.
  • We need a place where traditional meets new and new meets traditional.
  • Enabling many types of participation by increasing the granularity of participation works very well as a bridge between traditional and new.

It is not true that e-participation disintermediates, but what we actually see is shifts in intermediation actors. Or even an increase of them, especially if traditional and new ways of participation live together. Intermediaries include technologists, experts in facilitation methodologies, leaders to foster participation and engagement (e.g. traditional organizations), “inside” intermediaries or champions (e.g. government officials). And, of course, actors that can make all this people work together, building bridges (or networks), inviting them to be part of the design of the initiative.

It is worth bearing in mind that most technopolitical movements won’t engage in “thick” ways of participation as they do not adscribe to institutions or hierarchies but networks. They will expect not discrete participation but continuous one, where the cycle of information-deliberation-negotiation-decision-accountability feeds the next iteration in a continuum. Thus, it is not about direct democracy, but about open government.

In this train of thought, institutions don’t have to “act open”, but “be open”. They have to earn legitimacy not in one initiative, but in a whole attitude. This attitude usually shows when the institution does not limit herself to opening data, but the whole process of decision-making, including its protocols and infrastructures (e.g. free software).

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)

Appropriating Technology for Accountability (III). Tech per se (II)

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

Breakout session: Tech per se

What are we learning about how to design tech for accountable governance?

Can we focus on the whole system and not just individual initiatives? How will the system be affected by our actions? How can we change the system so that it is responsive to the needs of citizens — instead of trying to patch the system where it does not work.

There is a need to correctly identify the problems so that technology can be applied as a specific solution, not a generic solution in the search for problems to be solved.

We have to begin with the weakest link — the citizen — and then build the whole project after that. We have to avoid abstract concepts e.g. improve efficiency of the government, and try instead to identify smaller problems that can be addressed more or less directly and assessed for their improvement.

Where do you see innovation and creativity — including the use of existing technologies — in this field?

Government intentions or will should be embedded in the participatory projects: citizens have to trust their governments and their governments’ intentions so that commitment and engagement happens.

How can we ensure that technologies are adapted to fit the context?

When governments don’t want to listen, and the biggest problem is coordination of citizens, technology can play a very important part. Assembling people is crucial and technology usually is very effective in this field.

Importance of partnerships between citizens and governments.

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)

Appropriating Technology for Accountability (II). Tech per se (I)

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

Round table: Tech per se
Framer: Indra de Lanerolle, University of Witswatersrand/MAVC
Chair: Linda Raftree (independent)
Panellists: Declan Ottaro, Ushahidi – MAVC; Erica Hagen, Groundtruth; Lina Dencik, University of Cardiff; Tony Roberts, IDS

Technologies create enormous opportunities for generating and using data and amplifying and connecting voices — including those of marginalised citizens.

Scaling and replication is a complex process. Disruption may be the wrong approach.

The sector needs to follow more adaptive processes that take account of the affordance and roles of the specific technologies.

Technology cannot be understood outside of the cultural and social framework where it was designed and where it will be applied.

What roles can play technology?

Erica Hagen: distribute information and, most especially, the outcomes of applying this information.

Tony Roberts: availability, affordability, awareness, ability, accessibility. These are the five “levels of access/exclusion” of technology appropriation, to make sense of technology. Most of the time, more than doing “new” things with technology, we have to address these 4A.

Lina Dencik: the challenges of using technological platforms where people already are is that one can’t control how info travels, allows surveillance. We have also to be aware of the core processes of activism and how data can enhance them — not replace them with “data porn”.

Declan Ottaro: we have to remove the stigma that technology does not work for people. Sometimes “projects have to fail”, as this is the nature of innovation: essay and error, fail fast… and correct faster. But after that, we have to be sure that technology is useful for people. And the biggest incentive for citizens to use technology is getting a response from their government.

Erica Hagen: one of the things that technology can do well is unlocking the black box of decision-making and participation, making some processes more visible and understandable, especially in what concerns people relationships.

Tony Roberts: we have to begin with people and not technology, and especially with movements, with actions that can be enhanced with the application of technology.

Declan Ottaro: we have to prepare for change, to be flexible and adapt to always changing people needs.

Tony Robert: technology is not neutral and tends to reproduce patterns of domination and exclusion.

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)

Appropriating Technology for Accountability (I). Rosie McGee: What roles do and don’t technologies play in citizen voice and transparency for achieving accountable and responsive governance?

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

What roles do and don’t technologies play in citizen voice and transparency for achieving accountable and responsive governance?
Dr Rosie McGee, Making All Voices Count, IDS

Not everyone is online. Obvious as this is, planning for e-participation or any kind of online activities to improve democracy have to take this into account. For people to be empowered by ICTs they have to, at least, have access to such technologies.

Making All Voices Count is addressing quite a big set of problems that deal with the quality of democracy, as it is shown in the program’s theory of change.

What roles can technologies play in generating information or data that can be used for accountability and responsiveness purposes?

The problem is that transparency or information are never sufficient. If they were, most problems could be solved by ICTs providing access to information and data. But reality is much more complex. Why would we expect that technology could ever transform governance issues that are fundamentally about power?

Citizens have to engage with information. Information has not only to be public, but accessible, manageable, reusable, etc.

Citizens not only need access to information, but also need to have a voice in public issues. That is, they need to be listened to, they have to have feedback pathways. These pathways usually include intermediaries that link citizens with governments and vice-versa.

Political will to address a problem. Transparency itself will not change government attitudes itself. There have to be activist initiatives to increase the cost of governments of not acting.

Deliberation is indispensable. And deliberation, debate, is quite a leap forward from transparency. Transparency should, thus, be complemented with spaces, platforms, etc. that promote dialogue, based on trust.

These deliberative spaces have to take into account the different profiles of people participating in them: minorities, people excluded from deliberation or from society as a whole, different recognition of others’ voices, etc.

The new institutional environment emerging requires new skills too. Both citizens and representatives need a new set of skills to be able to make the best of technology for democracy. These skills are not only about technology, but about civic participation and democracy at large. If these skill needs are not met, technologies can actually eclipse citizens’ voices and undermine or obstruct accountability and responsiveness.

Discussion

Q: What are the realistic timelines for impact? Rosie McGee: This is indeed a good question. It depends heavily on the context, but as this is a transformation and not just a minor improvement, we should be realistic about the time span that deep changes will require.

Q: There are two important issues in civic participation online. First, fear of being labelled politically and attacked because of your ideology; second, political online propaganda and even online harassment of people that support some given ideologies.

Q: We speak a lot about “technological poverty”, but very little on “time poverty” and the cost of participation in terms of dedication, time, etc. Rosie McGee: a first step to this is that new ways of doing things does not imply a huge change for people. The challenge is how to let people do things as always but improve the outcomes of this traditional way of participating.

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)