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Just What is Civic Information?

Submitted by on February 27, 2011 – 7:34 pmNo Comment

All next week we will publish a series of posts that collectively aims to offer a guide for NGOs and funders to measure and evaluate the progress of their online influence. But first, let’s review the concept of “civic information” and some of the projects in Latin America that exemplify the use of public information by civil society. From our about page:

What is Civic Information?
Civic information refers to all information that belongs in the public sphere. That is, information that should be freely accessible by all citizens. The allocation of tax-payer money toward agricultural subsidies is one example, but so too is the basic geographic information which enables websites like OpenStreetMap to create maps of our communities. Civic information is also characterized by the fact that it is freely accessible online. For example, when Google partnered with the Pew Center on States to create a database of all polling stations in the United States, they published the database online so that anyone can create a tool or visualization of the information.

Increasingly, civil society organizations are becoming the custodians of civic information. With the aid of technology they act as a middle layer between government agencies that collect data and citizens that want to easily access the data in order to stay informed and hold their governments accountable.

What follows is a list of select projects from throughout Latin America that exemplify the concept of civic information:

Budget Monitoring

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Increasingly governments publish online how they spend taxpayers’ money. Civil society organizations then take that data, analyze it, and share it with the public.

  • Mexican Farm Subsidies – an online tool to allow journalists and citizens to analyze how the federal government allocates its farm subsidies as part of its rural development program. Our case study, here.
  • Public Spending in Bahía – programmed by just one person, this website takes data from the official municipal website of Bahía Blanca in southern Argentina and analyzes how public funds are used. For example, users can easily track which contractors receive the most money and how public spending changes from month to month.

Public Service Delivery

Governments provide public services to their citizens such as education, health, public transportation, water management, and public libraries. By analyzing information about such services, civil society can advocate for their improvement.

  • Compare Your School – a project of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, this website takes data from public tests that were obtained from the Secretary of Public Education from 2006 – 2009, and allows users to compare the aggregate test results from any school with the municipal, regional, and national averages. The website is tied to a campaign for educational reform.
  • Rebellion of the Sick – Sonora Ciudadana – the Mexican state of Sonora excluded patients with chronic diseases from its government subsidized health coverage, claiming that the state treasury couldn’t cover the expenses it would entail. But the NGO Sonora Ciudadana discovered that the state government never calculated how much it would cost to extend coverage to patients with chronic diseases. After launching a successful advocacy campaign with YouTube videos and offline billboards, the Sonora State Congress eliminated the clause which excluded patients with chronic diseases from state healthcare.

Judicial Transparency

By keeping a watchful eye on the decisions of judges we can better evaluate the consistency and effectiveness of their rulings. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay already have online indexes of legal decisions, but the websites are difficult to navigate and the decisions are nearly impossible to comprehend. To give citizens a better idea of how the legal system works in their country and to hold judges accountable for their decisions several NGOs have created online websites to catalog and compare legal decisions.

  • Database of Corruption Cases, 1998 – 2008 – this database by the Center for Human Rights in Chile provides summaries of legal corruption cases during a ten-year period in five South American countries.
  • Justice and Transparency – is an upcoming project by Suma Ciudadana that will provide access to documents about court cases in which citizens were not given the public information they sought under Peru’s 2008 Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information.
  • Without Corruption – The Argentinian organization ACIJ contributed several case analyses to the Center for Human Rights corruption databse, but they felt that a simple database did not go far enough to bring about greater judicial accountability. So they started the blog “Without Corruption” to monitor the progress of corruption cases in Argentinean courts with the aim of pressuring judges who have stalled the legal process.

Legislative Transparency

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Every Latin American country has a congress and each congress has its own website. For example: Guatemala’s Congress, Ecuador’s National Assembly, and Colombia’s Senate. As you can see for yourself, some congressional websites are more useful and usable than others. Even if an official congressional website does list attendance, voting records, and proposed legislation, it is doubtful that they will allow users to post comments, leave public feedback, or aggregate related information from other sources. It is for this reason that several new projects aim to serve as brokers of information between elected representatives and the citizens who vote them into office.

  • Visible Congress – was founded in 1998 at the Department of Political Science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. A full team of young professionals and hundreds of political science students at the university monitor the actions of the Colombian congress and enter them daily into the online databse. There is also an active forum and a quarterly newsletter of congressional highlights.
  • Open Congress – Like Visible Congress, the Brazilian Open Congress also began as a tool for political scientists to track the work and effectiveness of the national congress. But rather than keeping the database of information to themselves, these Brazilian academics decided to open it up to the larger web.
  • Smart Voting – is the first major project of the Chilean transparency group Smart Citizen Foundation. It tracks legislation, attendance, voting records, and keeps thorough profiles of federal politicians in all branches of Chile’s government.
  • Vote on the Web – The above-mentioned projects are all based around profiles of representatives and proposed legislation. Vote on the Web has a slightly different approach. First a team of volunteers translate proposed legislation from incomprehensible officialese into everyday Brazilian Portuguese. For example, last week representative Manuela Avila proposed to amend an article of the civil code to allow for the publication of unauthorized biographies. Users can then vote yes or no on each proposal and compare their votes with their representatives and the congress at large.

Elections

We see two main uses of online information platforms to make elections more transparent and accountable. The first tactic – exemplified by Who Do We Choose in Paraguay and CAD Electoral in Peru – creates directories of candidates so that voters can compare their profiles, experience, and proposals. The second strategy – exemplified by Voter 2010 in Brazil and Let’s Take Care of the Vote in Mexico – provide platforms to voters who want to report irregularities such as bribes, repeated voting, or illegal publicity.

  • CAD Electoral – A collaboration between Ciudadanos al Día and Peru’s El Comercio newspaper, the website allows users to view statistics and issues about their neighborhoods (crime reports, average salary, etc.) and compare the proposals of candidates.
  • Who Do We Choose? – A collaboration between the Center for Information and Resources for Development and Civil Society News, this Paraguayan website lists profiles of all candidates for the executive, judicial, legislative and local branches of government that users can vote and comment on.
  • Let’s Take Care of the Vote – was the first project of the Mexican citizen participation group Citivox. It was developed rapidly at the beginning of 2009 and was one of the first instances of Ushahidi to report electoral fraud.
  • Voter 2010 – also based on Ushahidi, Eleitor 2010 allowed Brazilian voters to submit reports of electoral fraud during the 2010 elections. In the Amazonian city of Coari, for example, it was reported that the mayor was handing out illegal campaign gifts during the World Cup.

Complaints

Other online platforms enable users to submit complaints – often about public or private services – and suggest solutions. While all of the above tactics seek to bring about greater accountability in government, some commentators like Archon Fung insist that it is equally important to bring greater transparency and accountability to the private sector. Sites like Reclamos.cl and QuienPagaManda attempt to do exactly that.

  • Democratic City – a Brazilian website that allows users to list problems and suggest proposals to resolve those problems. A thorough case study is available on the Technology for Transparency Network.
  • Reclamos.cl – is a Chilean website that tracks user complaints against public and private service providers and uses digital media and press relations to make noise until the companies are forced to respond.
  • Who Pays Commands – Based in Costa Rica, Quien Paga Manda is a blog-based interface that aims to empower consumers by tracking the performance of the private companies in Central America.

What have we missed? If you’d like to suggest a project – please do so below in the comments section.

A number of relevant, new projects are currently in the works and we will feature and evaluate them throughout the coming year.

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