New Ideas for Transparency & Technology in Latin America
For the past four months Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente — in collaboration with Información Cívica and Silvana Fumega, a consultant for the World Bank Institute — has been organizing a series of video-conferences with transparency NGOs and “civic hackers” from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Argentina. On May 5 and 6 a selection of those participants traveled to Santiago, Chile to participate in a two-day workshop focused on sharing information about new technologies, innovative transparency initiatives, and concrete ideas for future projects and collaborations. Among the organizations represented at the meeting:
- Reflexión Democrática
- Asociación Civil de Transparencia
- Suma Ciudadana
- Todos Somo Dateros
- Asociación por los Derechos Civiles
- Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento
- Asociacion Civil para la Igualdad y la Justicia
- Directio Legislativo
- Poder Ciudadano
- Garage Lab
Beyond Legislative Monitoring
The majority of the participating organizations are involved in legislative monitoring in some form or another. Many are members of the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency. But the goal of the meeting was not to limit ourselves solely to discussions of the use of technology in legislative monitoring (which we have discussed here previously), but to zoom out and look more generally at the application of technology in various types of transparency projects; including budget monitoring, education, lobbying, freedom of information requests, and more.
The first day we began with a small activity to generate some debate about attitudes toward technology in the transparency field. Participants chose their position along a line of tape stretching across the room depending on how much they agreed or disagreed with the following three statements:
- Providing access to government data is the most important step to strengthen democracy in Latin America.
- Any organization that works with open data, or that monitors legislative activity, should not take any political positions about proposed legislation, representatives, or political parties.
- It is necessary to work with mainstream, traditional media in order to increase civic participation in political processes.
Responses to the three statements represented a wide range of differing opinions and priorities among the participants, but we arrived at some general points of agreement. For example, it is better for an organization to be transparent about their political bias than to try to hide it with the aim of appearing objective. Also, taking advantage of new media often attracts the attention of broadcast journalists; while collaborating with traditional media can bring a wider audience to an organization’s website where they can engage in dialog that is not restricted to the one-to-many broadcast model.
Scrape, Clean, Crowdsource, and Communicate
A group of programmers, web developers, and designers then presented a generalizable workflow of four important steps in the process of using government information for transparency, accountability, and advocacy.
Scrapy allows users to take data from government websites in a format that can be analyzed and re-purposed.
First, Gonzalo Iglesias of Garage Lab provided an introduction to scraping tools such as ScraperWiki and Scrapy that allow organizations to take data from government websites so that they can be properly structured and analyzed. For example, in Argentina, Gasto Público Bahiense uses Scrapy to automatically pull in data from the Bahía Blanca municipal website and then uses Google Chart Tools to present that same data in ways that give it new meaning for citizens who want to know how their government spends their tax money and which service providers benefit most from government contracts.
Pedro Daire, chief of technology at Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente, then spoke about the importance of well organized databases in order to communicate information effectively and sustainably as more data is added over time. He presented Google Refine as a free, powerful tool to help clean up messy datasets and provided a few examples of how well organized data leads to better visualizations and websites that scale over time with fewer issues.
In addition to analyzing and visualizing government information, Jorge Soto of Citivox emphasized the importance of listening to citizens through the use of crowdsourcing. For example, an NGO in Mexico could use a freedom of information request to seek information about the number of metro users who enter and exit each station around the city at various times of the day. With that data they could build a timeline-based map that shows the flow of metro users throughout the city. But the organization could also use tools like Twitter and Crowdmap to solicit the opinions of residents about where there is a lack of public transit options. Both sources of information are valuable when planning an advocacy campaign to improve public transit.
Finally, information designers Rodrigo Ramírez and Montserrat Lobos presented a number of examples of how to best visually communicate large amounts of information. They stressed that while extensive graphs filled with hundreds of data points might look impressive, they rarely communicate the meaning or significance behind the information. Infographics – such as those regularly produced by the New York Times and Good Magazine – can help readers draw greater context from the types of statistics that are often rattled of in news reports and press releases, but some information is best communicated with text.
Tools and Projects
Participants then rotated to attend a selection of smaller workshops and presentations about specific tools — and then concrete projects. The tools workshops included:
- How to take advantage of social networks
- Mapping and georeferencing information
- ManyEyes and statistical analysis/visualization
- How to incorporate social networks into the design of websites
- Participation with mobile phones
- Introduction to Google Analytics
- Mailing lists
The projects that were presented:
- Dinero y Política – the analysis of political donations in Argentina using ManyEyes
- Acceso Inteligente – a portal to request and view freedom of information requests in Chile
- Curul 501 – a forthcoming legislative monitoring platform by Citivox and Fundar
- Justicia y Transparencia – a database of judicial sentences related to freedom of information requests in Peru
Acceso Inteligente is Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente’s newest project. It aims to make FOI requests more accessible and user friendly.
Innovating and Collaborating on New Projects
After the review of tactics, tools, and projects related to transparency and accountability, it was time for the executive directors of the NGOs and the civic hackers to break up into small groups and discuss projects that they would ideally like to carry out together with sufficient time and resources. They worked in teams for roughly an hour and then presented their ideas in front of the entire group. A small selection:
- Proetica and Citivox presented a platform to compare the promises that candidates make during campaign season with their actual accomplishments as elected officials.
- ACIJ and Reflexión Democrática explored ideas to make more transparent the public education sector in Argentina and Peru. Websites that served as inspirations include Compara Tu Escuela in Mexico, Check My School from the Philippines, and Elige Colegio in Chile.
- In Mexico, Impacto Legislativo, Fundar, and Citivox are planning a collaboration to build a directory of current legislators and legislative candidates for this year’s federal election. The platform will include filters and graphics to provide more information about party affiliation, legislative topics, voting records, gender, age, birthplace, etc.
- Kiko Mayorga from Escuelab in Perú and María Luisa Sotomayor of Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente put together a visually stunning presentation in a short amount of time to propose a strong collaboration between the two groups in order to foment the culture of “technology and transparency” in Peru. Already Escuelab has organized a meeting of transparency groups to discuss ideas for collaboration and there is much enthusiasm about implementing a version of Acceso Inteligente for Peru, a country which has a freedom of information law, but very little in terms of mechanisms for oversight and enforcement.
Open Data, Linked Data, and the Semantic Web
At this point everyone was drained after two intensive days of learning and participation. But we had one last special guest, Carlos de la Fuente of CTIC, a leader in the open data movement in Spain and Latin America. Carlos gave an excellent presentation about the current trends in open data, linked data, and the wider semantic web. According to CTIC’s directory of public dataset catalogs, so far Chile and Uruguay are the only countries in Latin America with official public datasets of government information, but as the global open government movement expands we can expect to see much more government data portals in coming years.
Participants left both exhausted and full of new ideas. The purpose of the event wasn’t necessarily to develop specific projects to begin working on immediately, but rather to present the executive directors of some of the region’s most influential transparency groups with a greater understanding and perspective of some of the current technological possibilities so that when the right opportunity presents itself, they have a more versatile toolbox to develop the most impactful projects possible.