This Is How The Techies Do It

How do you think the technologically-literate people empower the fight against corruption? You may think they’ll use the most advanced gizmos to track or spy on the corrupters. Or at least, developing high-tech methods to catch the grafters red-handed.

But just like how the smartest guys are the ones who can simplify things for people, so are the techies. They make technology easier to be used by everyone, even with their limited access to the wired world, people can participate in ensuring social accountability.

Simple things like monitoring and preventing corruption by sending Short Message Service (SMS). No need for having Facebook or Twitter accounts (although those can be used as well, of course). Who doesn’t own a cellphone nowadays anyway?

“Only about ten percent of the world’s population,” Philip Thigo said in the 2nd Global Youth Anti-Corruption Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, April 27th 2011. The activist of civil organization SODNet spoke in front of more than a hundred young corruption fighters in the three-day forum held by the World Bank Institute.

The data from International Telecommunication Union meant that 90 percent of the six billion human beings on earth in 2010 — about 5,3 billion people — do have the access toward cellphones. Even better, 80 percent of those six billion people live in rural areas.

SODNet works with Ushahidi, an organization founded by information technology experts in Africa, to develop a system that can map corruption allegations, report the implementation of public policies, as well as to monitor elections. One of the platforms that has been launched is Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili.

At first, Ushahidi was used to map reports of violence in Kenya after the general election of 2008, which claimed the lives of up to 800 people. The system was then used for a series of things in different countries, ranging from monitoring the use of the state budget in Kenya; monitoring Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera; monitoring elections in Tanzania, Uganda, Tunisia; disaster management in Haiti, Australia, Japan; and monitoring cities in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Thigo said short message is not the only way for people to give a report to the system, but it’s the method used the most. “For example, during the general elections in Uganda, about 40 thousand SMSes flooded our servers,” he said. “Sending short messages is very easy and cheap, everyone can do it.”

In addition, the public can also report through the web site, e-mail, and Twitter. Most of the technology users now are youths.

The system will filter out and put the report on the map on the website. The geo-mapping makes it easier for users to see which areas have the most problems, and what had happened there as well. A dedicated team will verify the reports to ensure the accuracy, and then affix the label “verified” if those inputs are correct.

Thigo believes the use of technology is very relevant for the anti-corruption movement, because the reporters can be anonymous. The identity of the complainers are deliberately made difficult to track, so their safety is pretty much guaranteed. Setting up the system is also made to be easy, so it can be done in a matter of hours.

Moreover, public input comes quickly and transparently, so it can be seen by everyone, including journalists. He pointed out, a report on one website that uses the Ushahidi system had been used as a news peg which triggered an investigation of corruption in Kenya’s Ministry of Irrigation.

Thigo and his friends now are developing a new system called Huduma (“service” in Swahili). This system allows the authorities to immediately respond to complaints. How cool is that? The system will enable the public to know which institutions are slow, and which are responsive and deserve some praises.

The use of technology, particularly SMSes, is also used by many institutions in Africa, although with different systems. Among those are the UN humanitarian agency for children, UNICEF, which uses SMS in geo-mapping to monitor delivery of medical supplies in Uganda. There’s also MCHANJO, of which its system recorded the birth of children and then automatically send short messages for the mothers to remind them to take the children for immunization.

Jecel Censoro

In the Philippines, they have Check My School, which uses a similar system to monitor the condition of schools in the provinces. Via SMS and web site, citizens can report deficiencies, excess, complaints, and praise for their schools. Teams of volunteers are also deployed to verify the report.

Jecel Censoro, an activist of Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific in charge of the program Check My School, reminds the forum’s participants that one of the important element is the involvement of the authorities in social accountability projects. Because, without follow-up from the government, the public report may only end as statistics. “That’s why we make a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Education, to make sure they follow up on the reports,” she said.

Thigo added, we should never forget the importance of campaigning the instruction of using the existing technology, along with setting it up. “Because technology alone can not solve all problems. It is the human resources who determines the success of the efforts,” he said.

Retha Dungga from Transparency International Indonesia, said she had shown Check My School to friends in KPK, Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency. They were amazed and said never heard of it before. “It sounds crazy that they didn’t know. I really want to see similar programs exists in Indonesia, but it means that we have to work with government,” said the originator of clubSPEAK.

Because usually persuading the government is a complicated job, keeping in mind that Indonesia is a way bigger archipelago than the Philippines, she’s still brainstorming on how to modify the project in a smaller scale but still easy to use for youths.

By the way, in the field of social accountability in my own country, I was surprised when I find www.klikjkt.or.id, which invites citizens to monitor the governance of Jakarta.

The website, also uses the Ushahidi, was initiated by Rujak Center for Urban Studies (founded by a famous Indonesian architect Marco Kusumawijaya) and Tim Air Putih, supported by the Green Radio and the Goethe Institute Jakarta. Jakarta residents can give inputs about nine categories, ranging from public facilities, urban development, flood, garbage, disaster, to the arts and culture.

In the forum in Nairobi, many sessions were allocated for the use of technology. After the forum, Jayeesh Balla Singh, an expert on information technology in Kenya, expressed his hope that the young activists would be encouraged to use it. “At the beginning of the forum, I saw hesitations to use technology. I hope it does not exist any more,” he said.

On the sidelines, the participants who joined the mapping for social accountability group in the forum decided to form a support group. Therefore, they can work together in helping each other to create a map through sharing of resources, experiences, tools and techniques applicable to the particular area of focus.

Thanks for technology, its experts, and its users, we are now a hundred steps closer to the world where corruption is curbed.

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This is a rewrite of my previous blog, first written in Bahasa Indonesia. This entry is also posted here.
The picture of Jecel was photographed by Felix Weth.

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