“The thing to remember is, Human beings do not socialize in a completely random way. There’s a tangible reason for us being together, that ties us together. Again, that reason is called the Social Object.” Hugh MacLeod
The Open Government Partnership declaration commits members to support civic participation in addition to making data on government activities open to the public. In Africa, Kenya made history as the first country in sub-Sahara Africa to implement an open data initiative giving citizens unprecedented access to valuable datasets. 40 countries, 5 of them African countries, have since signed up to the OGP and I believe they are at different levels of following through on the spirit of the declaration.
The value of open data to citizens is unquestionable. This year, Kenyan software developers have launched mobile apps that leverage open data to provide services to citizens. They have mostly been in the healthcare and agriculture verticals but services in education and entertainment have begun to emerge. These are very encouraging signals coming out of a country that only a decade or two ago made it almost impossible for citizens to know what the government was doing. These apps may not have been possible without access to the huge amount of data the government holds and is now making available to software developers.
However, we shouldn’t think of only mobile and the web when we talk about leveraging open data. “To turn raw data into ‘edible’ content that citizens can consume and make decisions with” should be the overarching objective for anyone looking to improve citizen participation in governance through open data. This edible bits of content should be easily consumed on the now ubiquitous mobile devices in Africa as well as on old fashioned news print and billboards. Jyri Engestrom refers to social networks as “object-centered sociality” meaning people connect because they have a reason to and that reason is usually an object (in the loose sense of the word). Moving from mere intentions to action may start with little more than an object (physical or otherwise).
Citizen participation starts with ignition; the spark that gets the fire going. Sparks are generated when conversations happen. Human beings having conversations about an issue can be inspired to transform intent into action, finding within their conversations the things that tie them together. Social objects are the reason sparks start. They provide the license/excuse for conversations between people (sometimes total strangers) to start. If we use open data to create social objects offline as well as online, we can mobilize citizens for social and political change and a better quality of life. However, these social objects need to be relevant to the audience, tapping into their concerns and aspirations as individuals and as a community.
Developing more effective programs/initiatives around democracy and governance therefore needs better intelligence about the citizens and their communities as well as better alignment of organizational goals with the people’s needs. It’s about taking a user-centered approach to project design which can fundamentally change how eGovernment and civil society work. It also means taking a multi-platform approach so that insights gleaned from open data are not relegated to digital silos accessible only by the privileged few.
Social Objects in Open Governance
It is not uncommon to see small groups of men hurdled around a newspaper at a news stand on weekday mornings sometimes in animated debate. The newspaper’s content is already a social object our society is familiar with and one that can be leveraged to transition citizens from intent to action. Here are four ideas that can help us on the road to better initiatives that find relevance among people.
- Find the issues your people actually care about. Not everyone is likely to be moved to action by the same message. Figuring out which segments or archetypes in the community resonate with your cause makes it possible to design highly effective initiatives. Furthermore, the issues citizens care about can be fundamentally different to those NGOs and civil society organizations think people should care about. If we take the time to listen, we will hear them.
- Build appropriate local social objects. Mobile apps in a region with low mobile phone penetration is a recipe for an endless pilot program. Billboards, FM radio talk shows and print ads or posters would be more effective. For instance, using traditional media to highlight statistics on misappropriation of local government funds would probably spur those in that community to action if done using appropriate channels. It is also likely that this same information would be completely irrelevant to citizens in a different locality, hence the need to think local as well.
- Include feedback and amplification. The conversations sparked by the social object need to be captured. Including a mechanism to capture these conversations and amplify them allows people to hear related conversations happening across the ‘room’. Additional or even opposing points of view are introduced creating richer dialogue and better outcomes (in my opinion). These conversations can be captured via call-in shows, text messages or even social media.
- Update objects with a conversations layer. Once open data has been published, social objects created and conversations are happening around the piece of data that was published, its time to publish an update to the existing dataset with a layer of the people’s opinions. Sometimes people think they are the only ones with an idea or pain around an issue. Updating the social objects with this layer of feedback creates awareness about the scale of public sentiment and could inspire action.
Open data requires not only that the veracity of data be maintained but its freshness as well. This means social objects need to be updated, new conversations captured, objects updated and the cycle repeated. It also calls for a multi-channel approach to civic participation programs that take into account the role ICT is playing in the community and the level of comfort citizens have using new or existing channels to speak out.