Lessons from Buntwani: The next step in empowering citizens with technology

The opengov community at Buntwani 2015!

Last week, 70 key members of the open government community traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, for Buntwani 2015, a regional workshop billed as a “platform for reflection, analysis and candid dialogue” on using technology to empower citizens and create more accountable governments. The question of the impact of open data has been a question we’ve been pondering recently, so this workshop piqued my interest.

If you’ve followed the blogging about conferences, projects and the legal landscape of global political finance that I’ve done over the past year as part of the Money, Politics and Transparency project, one of the running themes that characterize this work is trying to figure out how access to political finance data can help break down entrenched and corrupt systems susceptible to outside influence. Whether or not technology can play a substantive role in this, especially without available data or extensive tech knowledge, has certainly been an ongoing point of debate. Although I don’t think I have an answer to this question quite yet, this workshop did help crystallize some of my thinking on what can contribute to major changes in governance.

In one discussion session with data journalists, we tried to identify factors that lead to lasting change in corrupt political systems. Two key factors are often present in causing major shifts: a mobilized citizen base and scandal. We already know that data journalism can break scandals, and when working with connected communities, technology can also play a crucial role in building citizen momentum. For example, social media can contribute to the quick dissemination of information, as shown by the revolutionaries in Egypt in 2011, #BlackLivesMatter and the Occupy Movement. Data journalism can also help paint a complete picture of the aggravated situation over time. Hearing one corruption story after another can make the storylines run together, but being able to track the misuse of funds in a local community over time can help explain how this corruption connects to the lives of citizens. There are even examples of entire social movements being organized via online platforms, such as the populist Podemos movement in Spain last year, which used Reddit and Loomio to connect with supporters.

Attendees participating in a workshop at Buntwani 2015.

However, the key is that these communities need to already be connected to these resources, and these media platforms need to resonate with the groups we are trying to reach to be able to trigger a public reaction. If people don’t access journalism online, use social media — or even if they do use these tools, but not for the purpose of organizing — then they’ll have no effect on mobilizing citizens.

This is why trying to push a technology-driven agenda on NGOs or drive the demand for open data can be meaningless. This is also why some of the most inspiring people I met in South Africa last week were old-fashioned grassroots activists. Take the Right2Know Campaign, for example, a South African social movement that organizes a diverse coalition of local NGOs to end government secrecy and advance the right to information. Or Corruption Watch, also based in South Africa, which is trying to mobilize youth to stand against corruption. Reaching these disparate and disconnected communities can be really difficult, especially when you consider the mistrust marginalized communities justifiably have toward traditional power structures in a country with such a complicated history of inequity. These challenges reaffirm the importance of these movements.

Technology can help tell the story, and it can sometimes even help connect people to mobilize social change, but the ecosystem of organizing and establishing trust within communities is important in tearing down unjust power structures. Ultimately, these major changes are cultural shifts — only people can change cultures.