Development as Freedom: The World Bank’s how-to series “Amplifying Citizen Voices through Technology” (PART 2 OF 2)

The evaluation framework we commented on in a recent blog post is only one part of the World Bank’s series of handbooks on rethinking approaches to the use of information and communication technologies for development [ICTD]. The Bank is also calling for feedback on three other guides formulated by the Open Development Technology Alliance, which similarly consider ICTD projects in a “capacities framework.”

Overall, these draft handbooks provide a clearly articulated set of practices that interrogate assumptions about the usefulness of ICTs in development contexts and suggest approaches for optimizing their impact.

Draft Report 1: Towards Open Government Data for Enhanced Social Accountability

This is a thorough guide of how to use open data released by governments to improve government practices and distribution of services or to develop capacity. It considers the roles played by various stakeholders (government, civil society, and ICT developers) and the stages of interventions using Open Government Data (OGD). The handbook points out that the release of OGD is dependent upon the cooperation of government actors, which may be difficult to achieve in restrictive or corrupt governance contexts.

Our suggestions:

  • This framework relies upon existing technical capacities in civil society and IT intervention by outside groups. More emphasis should be placed upon increasing technical capacity of the general population through trainings in data literacy.
  • Ethical and methodologically sound data collection practices should be encouraged in addition to data release and management. Too often, governments collect only minimal data on informal settlements and economies. Better data collected through ethical and defensible methods is necessary for good research practice.
  • Handbook should consider not only encouraging the release of government data but also industry data, especially as essential services are increasingly supplied by public-private partnerships (PPP). PPPs, like government government agencies, should be accountable when taking on the role of essential service providers.

Draft Report 2: ICT-Enabled Citizen Feedback Loops

We applaud the intention of this guide, which advocates for improved mechanisms for citizen feedback built into the process of development projects. The report points out asymmetries in information flows created by special interests of small groups of intermediaries, and suggests techniques for managing a number of variables, including ensuring inclusivity of platforms for feedback, deciding who will be responsible for monitoring and responding to feedback, and incorporating feedback into project cycles, in addition to the social context of the intervention.

Our suggestions:

  • Ensure that there is an explicit, well-communicated link between feedback received and any adjustments in the project cycle and plans. The guide talks about the importance of both, but not about making the link between them visible to stakeholders.
  • Manage expectations regarding the timing of responses. People submitting feedback may not have an understanding of project phasing or the time needed to incorporate changes.
  • Release aggregated feedback data for transparency.

Draft Report 3: Getting On the Map - A Community’s Path to Better Services

This guide is an important resource for citizen mapping, unlocking the potential of the process for communities not only to understand and document local issues, but to provide essential baseline information to governments and civil society organizations who want to improve conditions or initiate projects. Unlike the other handbooks, this one talks specifically about how to integrate residents in the projects, building capacity in valuable digital skills while also working toward specific goals. It also talks about the importance of robust partnerships and trust relationships as essential elements of community mapping, whether for the purpose of improving service distribution or for building community through storytelling.

Our suggestions:

  • Incorporate multiple technological and non-technological platforms in mapping processes. The guide suggests using GPS units and digital cameras, but feature phones can also be used for this process when combined with SMS platforms; storytelling or cognitive maps can be made at community meetings or charrettes using markers and glue-sticks.
  • Train participants not only in the surveying stage of mapping, but in the use of other open geographic tools in the process, such as OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers. Capacity-building can be sustained throughout the process.
  • Integrate the mapping work with the Open Government Data initiative. Encourage governments to release base maps and geospecific census data, which provide an important supplement to crowdsourced maps

The concrete information in these how-to handbooks is valuable for capacity-building in many contexts. We find that each handbook provides excellent resources and tools. In our work with communities in Detroit and Philadelphia, OTI has adopted a capacity-building approach similar to the one described in this series, and we have implemented many of the tools described. Next steps we’d recommend include: a how-to guide for how to operationalize the tools in this collection together, in concert: how to evaluate a mapping project, for example. We’d also overall like to see more explicit guidance regarding the leadership and participation of local communities in work done by and for them. All of this seems possible and even likely given the shift this series signals in the direction of global development: away from a primary focus on macro infrastructure projects and toward a more inclusive frame for increasing community capacity through technology.

Author:

Greta Byrum is the director of the Resilient Communities program at New America. She reimagines the way we design, build, and manage communications systems to support local residents as leaders, organizers, and preparedness experts.