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No bar on this front: Technology can aid accountability

By Frederick Noronha

A BarCamp held in Gurgaon recently showcased a number of new initiatives focused on technology, transparency and accountability, from ways to minimise corruption in dealings with government to ways to track power cuts

Google plus techies, jholawalas and good intentions. What happens when all mix on the ninth floor of a Haryana highrise? What emerges is a BarCamp that happened in June 2011.

Don't get mislead by the term 'bar' in the name. Of course, Google's cafeteria is generously stocked; but it's not about liquor. BarCamps are user-generated conferences (or un-conferences). They're a less formal, or quite informal, meet-up.

As the Wikipedia reminds us, the first BarCamps focused on early-stage web applications, and were related to free software or open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats. The format has also been used for a variety of other topics, including public transit, healthcare, and political organising.

In Gurgaon -- the second-largest city in the Indian state of Haryana, some 30 km south of the Indian national capital of New Delhi, and one of Delhi's four major satellite cities -- the BarCamp focussed on technology, transparency and accountability.

It was held by Accountability Initiative, a research initiative that "aims to improve the quality of public services in India by promoting informed and accountable governance".

Founded in 2008, Accountability Initiative (http://www.accountabilityindia.in/) has been attempting to develop innovative models for tracking government-led social sector programmes in India. The Centre for Policy Research, a research institute and think-tank, is the institutional anchor for this initiative.

"It is now widely accepted that greater transparency -- access to information and data on the day-to-day functioning of government -- is key to creating accountable and effective governance systems," argues Accountability Initiative.

It says India's Right to Information Act (2005) has played a significant role in strengthening transparency by "committing the government to both pro-actively providing citizens with information and also responding to specific information requests."

The Act has met with much success -- RTI applications are growing by the day. But there still remain "concerns related to quality, and reliability of information and data provided." Besides, there are still many gaps in the government's efforts to proactively disclose information and data of public relevance.

"Technology is one of many tools that can help address these gaps. There are some incredible initiatives taking place across the world on opening government data and on getting data to work for ordinary citizens," argues Accountability Initiative.

This BarCamp was aimed at creating a "platform for technologists to share these technologies and contribute to the debate on strengthening accountability and transparency."

Among the technologies and attempts on display were the Jan Lokpal Bill (deliberative democracy and internet tools) with Paul Culmsee of http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/.

WikifyIndia (http://www.wikifyindia.com/) is a new non-profit initiative, run completely by volunteers, which seeks to "make interactions with the government faster, less expensive and less prone to corruption". It does so by providing complete and accurate information on procedures and collating experiences (aggregating the wisdom of the crowds).

WikifyIndia is founded by Sohel Bohra and Anish Chandy.

prsindia.org is an attempt at "strengthening the legislative process by making it better informed, more transparent and participatory." Founded in 2005, the independent research initiative works with Members of Parliament (MPs) across party lines to provide research support on legislative and policy issues. "Our aim is to complement the base of knowledge and expertise that already exists in government, citizens groups, businesses, and other research institutions," it says.

Dinesh Shenoy has been part of Palantir. Palantir has developed http://AnalyzeThe.US which allows anyone to to explore vast amounts of data, including key datasets from www.data.gov. It allows anyone to develop a picture of the complex flows of resources, money, and influence that affect how our government functions. This "democratises analysis".

Another participant, Vinay Kumar, is chief strategist at digitalgreen.org. It aims to improve the social, economic and environmental sustainability of small farmer livelihoods. Explains Digital Green: "We aim to raise the livelihoods of small-holder farmers across the developing world through the targeted production and dissemination of agricultural information via participatory video and mediated instruction through grassroots-level partnerships."

Delhi-based Tuhin Sen is Lead Strategist at the Global Development Network, and comes from a rich background in advertising. The GDNet knowledgebase is a comprehensive internet portal to development research produced in developing countries.

Other interesting ideas were there too. Siddharta Jain is promoting a one-stop government portal. Pranesh Prakash of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society has promoted open data. Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

Raman Chima of Google offered an insight into the new tools for open-data coming from a US multinational already known for Internet search, cloud computing and ad technologies.

Aditya, Ritwik and Dhruv outlined their plans for an RTI (right to information) portal. It's important that all the information emerging from the government should be sharable and visible to all. Not just the person making the query.

Gaurav Dhir believes open data can be used to build better cities, and points to examples like Helsinki. IITian Shailesh Gandhi, RTI campaigner turned central information commissioner, dropped hints on how technology could make governance more transparent in India.

Ekgaon.com's Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya has a vision of using mobile technology for making rationed-commodity supply to the poor more efficient, and less leakage-prone.

eGovernments Foundation was set up in 2003 and is based in Bangalore. Manu Srivastava and team offer products dealing with property, grievances, financials, births and deaths, city websites, work, GIS, and infrastructure components.

NIC, the Government of India institution, has also undertaken e-panchayat and a number of other initiatives, which have perhaps received less attention than deserved.

transparentchennai.com meanwhile aggregates, creates and disseminates data and research about important civic issues facing Chennai, including issues facing the poor.

Journalist Nikhil Pahwa raised issues of transparency and the media, while Rishab Verma's theme was open data initiatives across the world. Other themes ranged from the public information infrastructure (Sukhman Randhawa), the national election watch online initiative (Trilochan Shastry), making voting in India trustworthy, social accountability (Yamini Aiyar), uncovering business and politics links (Rohit Chandra), among others.

One of the interesting if new initiatives is a mapping of power-cuts and electricity failures across India. Using an East African-origin tool, Ushahidi, Ajay Kumar set up the powercuts.in website, which simply yet effectively notes where people are reporting power cut problems from.

Organisers of the BarCamp suggested that technology solutions could be "significantly enhanced" if they are developed in consultation with "people working on the ground, people who deal with the challenges of our current governance systems in India".

Their BarCamp was intended to "initiate a conversation" between technology specialists and people working on the ground. Through the camp, their goal was to "create a space" where people can share their knowledge about how best to "use new technologies to make our government really work for the people."

In Google's brightly-coloured cafeteria -- with even chairs in its "Google colours" of bright red, yellow and blue -- ideas were shared and links forged. The challenge would be to take such initiatives forward and keep them going.

Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based writer who focuses on technology and development.

Infochange News & Features, June 2011