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Bringing Social Objects to Citizen Empowerment

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Sparking conversations among citizens is the first step to creating change. 

Kenyans woke up to a pleasant surprise one March morning. Graffiti with a political message sprayed on walls in Nairobi’s central business district. And not the terrible kind that is an eye-sore with good intentions. This was “stop-and-stare”  graffiti that not only made news in Kenya but overseas as well.

Image: The Guardian (click to read more)


Jyri Engestrom uses the term ‘object-centered sociality‘ to describe an approach that takes into account the objects that connect people to each other. Specific people to specific others.  It also, in my opinion, explains why campaigns designed to improve citizen engagement in democracy or governance fail. They give people no reason to participate. At least not a compelling reason from the citizens perspective. Participating in democracy (other than casting your vote) or in community policing for many means stepping out of their comfort zone. Without a reason to, people generally won’t do it no matter how passionate or emotional the appeal made by their favorite celebrity is.

As someone so eloquently put it on Twitter, what Boniface Mwangi and his crew of amazing artists are doing’is voter education 101 in public spaces‘. The graffiti was a great social object. It created a reason for strangers to have conversations share experiences on the street and online as the images did the rounds on social networks.

Graffiti, posters, billboards provide a high impact canvas for visualizing ‘boring’ data and sparking conversations. Whether things progress from conversations to intent and then to action is largely determined by the platforms used to allow sharing, self-expression and curation. Kenyans have, in my opinion, two great sources of data for visualization; Kenya Open Data and Mzalendo a citizen portal whose mission is to “keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament”.

Will I wake up one morning in April to another pleasant surprise? A platform that offers social objects  in public spaces and gives the ‘canvas’ grassroots scale and sparks conversations? That would be a great place to start.

See a slideshow of the graffiti on BBC’s website here (In Pictures: Kenya’s mystery murals)



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  1. Corporate Big Data Should Team Up With Public Open Data
  2. Government Services Intermediation: The New Role for Cybercafes.
  3. From Open Data to Open Action

Written by Muchiri Nyaggah

April 10th, 2012 at 10:33 am


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