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Round Table on Assessing the Efficacy of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for Public Initiatives: A Report

Zainab Bawa reports on the Round Table on Assessing the Efficacy of Information and Communication Technologies for Public Initiatives, hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, on 17 June 2009, in collaboration with the Liberty Institute, New Delhi.

In recent times, there has been an upsurge in the use of ICTs to provide information to people and to elicit participation. Individuals, corporate organisations, NGOs, civil society organisations, collectives, municipalities, political parties and politicians have been using the internet and other mediums to communicate with people. The round table was organised primarily to discuss two issues:

  1. What is the effectiveness of the initiatives introduced in recent times?
  2. How do we move forward in terms of partnerships/collaborations in the areas of data gathering, sharing, dissemination and architecture of information?

Given the constraints of time, however, we were only able to discuss a few issues with respect to efficacy of initiatives, rather than come up with a concrete action plan on how to measure effectiveness of many of the existing initiatives. This remains an agenda for subsequent meetings.

This round table was the first meeting of its kind. It brought together participants from diverse backgrounds to discuss key issues involved in leveraging ICTs towards various ends, and to collaborate with each other on ongoing initiatives. Participants included researchers, persons who have developed information platforms and databases, individuals working in the area of leveraging technology for streamlining processes in society and people who have been studying usage patterns of social media tools. Most of the participants were using ICTs to improve information access related to health issues, education, budgets, development of rural areas and recently, elections and governance. In the subsequent sections, I will briefly elaborate on some of the key themes around which discussions took place during the round table.

Building on Ideas: In the morning and pre-lunch sessions, one issue that featured prominently was the importance of developing ideas rather than trying to work out a perfect model that we believe will solve what we perceive to be people’s problems. Two of the participants explained that they started implementing ideas as they came to them, rather than trying to come up with a framework that they thought would work for the masses. They worked towards evolving their ideas, exploring what works and what does not. One of them further pointed out that such evolution cannot be observed as it happens; it only becomes apparent in hindsight. Hence, discussions such as the current round table are useful.

It is also important to note that we are still in a nascent stage of understanding how ICTs can impact people’s lives and deploying them accordingly. As a result, many efforts are likely to be in the stage of trial and error.

Key areas of interest and concern: Based on the input from participants in the morning session, we arrived at a list of areas that require more understanding and discussion.

  1. Information gathering, dissemination, access – including information architecture, technology design: Here, three issues were discussed:
    • Who are we talking about when we refer to information access? It was pointed out that information is crucial particularly for people who do not have computers and for whom internet is not a priority. The intensity with which they seek information is remarkable. One of the participants argued that we undervalue the potential of information to make a difference to people’s lives.
    • How do we deliver information? Providing information is not enough.
    • Representativeness of the information for those who it is provided for.

Another issue that was referred to was whether language is a problem, i.e., most information is available only in English. One of the participants suggested that this is not the case because Google has found that a very small percentage of the population actually refers to material on the web in languages other than English.

  1. Community mobilization: During the deliberations, we referred to the problem of replication of initiatives. Two observers of social media pointed out that replication happens because people are trying to create their own unique communities around their initiatives. This is an important insight for future efforts and also indicates the need to share databases and information that individuals and organisations have compiled. They also suggested that it is important to discover existing communities and spaces where conversations around issues of governance, education, health and development are taking place. This helps to plug into existing resource pools and to extend outreach.
  1. Citizens’ participation: Initiatives that work and why they succeed - We briefly discussed the Jaagore campaign and India Vote Report, which were launched before the 2009 national elections in India to enable people to register on the electoral rolls and to report irregularities during elections respectively. Some people found it difficult to register themselves on the Jaagore website and some had difficulties in finding the local offices where they needed to follow-up with the process. It was also pointed out that Vote Report did not connect with the end user because it would have been easier to report irregularities and anomalies via SMS rather than trying to report them by logging on to the site. If one looks at the case of the Online Complaint Management System (OCMS) developed by Praja, the availability of the telephone hotline service through which citizens could register their complaints helped in widening usage. Thus, it appears that two issues are pertinent:
    • Whether the initiative connects with the people who are likely to use it;
    • Simplicity of design/system that enables more users.

Target Audience: One of the participants pointed out that some initiatives do not work because they are targeted towards the wrong audiences. For example, when it comes to voting and elections, poor groups are the ones who go out and vote in large numbers. Hence, information systems need to be tailored to provide them with the data that they need most. Access also has to be configured accordingly. In some instances, the target is too broad to reach out effectively.

It appears that there is a need to develop strategies on how platforms and databases that have been created to enhance access to information can be made known among the masses and how people can be made aware to use them. It is equally important to understand what constitutes ‘information’ and for whom. Here, the other issue to explore is how information links back to the people for who it is provided.

  1. Technology: In this area, a key concern was the high costs involved in developing technologies and whether we could learn from each other’s experience of developing technologies instead of reinventing the wheel. We also discussed whether open source software helps to reduce costs of development. The other issue with respect to open source is whether there is enough assistance and support available to resolve problems that may crop up during use of technology from time to time.

Sharing of Data: Discussions also veered around the issue of whether appropriate technology and applications could be created to help with sharing existing databases and information pools. We did not discuss this issue in depth, but it remains relevant for subsequent meetings.

  1. Back end integration: According to some of the participants, one of major problems is the interface between government and citizens, which remains weak. Technology can be used to enhance the interactions. Participants also pointed out the difficulty in obtaining data from government bodies that is important to create the interface between government and citizens. A participant involved with the Jaagore campaign referred to the problem of back-end integration during their efforts to help citizens register themselves with the election commission (EC) offices. A participant from Google similarly reported that they faced problems in obtaining election results from the EC’s offices as a result of which, they had to rely on their partners for this information. Here too, we could not deliberate on how to resolve this problem, but this could be a major theme for a subsequent meeting.
  1. Performance (monitoring, evaluation): One of the themes that participants zeroed in on was the evaluation of the performance of elected representatives and making this evaluation available for people to see. Here, the debate was around the problem of evaluation being carried out according to the criteria we set which may not seem relevant to other sections of society. One of the suggestions that came up was to develop a matrix for evaluation and put out information accordingly. People can then use it to make their own judgments. rt2

In the post-lunch session, some of the participants shared their experiences with implementation and also the work they and their organisations are currently engaged with. Towards the end of the round table, each one of the participants explained their respective projects and how they may wish to collaborate with other participants (who were present) in their initiatives. An e-group called “CIS-Info-Access” has been created to take these conversations and collaborations further. 

Evaluation of the Round Table and Way Forward:

When invitations were sent out to people to participate in the round table, many of the invitees expressed a genuine and enthusiastic interest in being part of this effort. As mentioned above, one of the reasons for this enthusiasm was because this was the first meeting of its kind, bringing together individuals from the fields of technology, research and implementation. We invited a total of 35 people out of which 27 finally attended the meeting. The diversity of the participants was an asset in that a variety of issues were brought to the table. The drawback was that there was not enough time to discuss some of the pertinent issues in depth. Future meetings can be tailored to discuss one or two specific themes such as back-end integration and sharing of information, technology issues, ideas for mobilising citizens and communities, etc.

The possibilities of collaboration between participants in this meeting are immense and we hope that some of the synergies will materialise into concrete outcomes. Further, a few participants have expressed an interest in organising similar meetings in their cities/towns, perhaps focusing on a few issues instead of bringing people together under a broad theme. Of some of the issues discussed, participants have indicated that back-end integration with government and ideating on different ways of disseminating data can be further deliberated on in future. One of the participants also suggested that there is a need to make ‘data’ more relevant to people’s lives.

While the meeting was fruitful in many respects, one issue needs to be underlined. This concerns the imagination of internet and ICTs as mediums that can resolve all existing problems with respect to citizen-government interface, streamlining of processes and provision of information. Such an overarching imagination of technology overlooks the cultural, economic, social and political specificities of communities and contexts. Technology can also have negative implications in some circumstances. It also needs to be reinforced that technology is embedded in society and culture. Therefore we need to view technology as one of the avenues among others available which will facilitate interactions between people and their governments and the state. Democratisation is more likely to be realised through such a perspective.