Democracy 2.0, Pecha Kucha Night

How can governments use the power of data, media and technology to become more participatory, responsive and citizen centric? At PechaKucha Night #26, we invited seven speakers, Aditya Gupta from Parity for People, Dheeraj Dwivedi from linkedIn, Sumeeta Banerji from Democratic governance program UNDP, Sumandro Chattapadhyay from Sarai Programme, Surendran Balachandran from Change.org India, Anil Verma retired army officer and Prukalpa Sankar from Social Cops, to examine these questions and imagine the ideals of Democracy 2.0 by citing examples of various technology-based initiatives, against the backdrop of one of India’s most exciting national elections.

pecha kucha

Much of the architecture of governments around the world was innovated in a period between 300-150 years ago after which there have only been incremental changes. The democratic philosophy is imminent in most governments around the world, allowing, at least in theory, for citizen engagement in political process through direct or representative models. However, democracy as we know it today comes with various challenges and shortcomings. In the case of India, a large and diverse citizenry often feels unequally represented and crippling rates of corruption have bred mistrust toward political leaders, parties and systems, leading to a tremendous yearning for change in the way government functions. Given the widespread adoption of technology and the resulting paradigm shift in the ways in which we communicate, there is promise in revisiting governmental processes and imbibing democracy 2.0.

Given that democracy is ideally representative of a nation’s people, Adiyta Gupta analysed democracy in India by urging us to critique not only government units, but rather the extent to which its ideals are practiced in our daily lives. He looked at the family as a basic social unit and questioned whether the pillars of democracy i.e. our fundamental rights, are visible within it. Instances of a girl child having to make special cases for her education to be equal to that of her brother, of marital and child abuse, and other similar issues being buried behind veils of dignity and embarrassment are characteristic to many Indian households. Often communal and caste considerations are central in selecting spouses, as well as electing leaders. While we expect the government to safeguard our right to education, expression,religion and constitutional remedy,they are not revered at a household level. As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar suggested, democracy would fail in India, as the concept of ‘one man, one value’, an essential part of our constitution, is absentin society.These failures of democracy demand a necessary reform, not on the part of the government, but rather on the part of the Indian citizenry.

Following Aditya, Dheeraj Dwivedi talked of democracy as a decision making process that involves multiple people. He suggested the need for an equal share of power, resources and knowledge between people involved in making these decisions. One of the most common decisions a population makes is that of electing their political representatives. These decisions are heavily influenced by our family and peers, as well as the media that is often biased and selective in its broadcasts. There is often no other data that supports these decisions. However, the problem is not one of a lack of data, or the accessibility of it, but rather its scattered and incomprehensible nature. Dheeraj is working on a tool that will provide easily comprehendible data sets, presenting vital information such as political parties and their corresponding crime rates, thereby empowering the citizenry with the knowledge to make informed decisions is necessary to facilitate effective democracy.

Democracy, according to Surendran Balachandran, is not just about electing representatives but also about engaging with political, social and business leaders. All citizens are activists, and the internet not only provides us with information, but serves as a platform for mobilizing people. 188 million citizens in India access internet through their mobile phones, making mobile technologies a valuable tool through which citizens can engage with their decision makers. Change.org serves as a platform through which people can raise issues that can then be supported by other citizens. This can be seen in the example of the RTI, as previously mentioned by Anil Verma. When the Central Information Commission included national political parties within the purview of RTI, politicians spoke of amending the RTI Act. The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information started a campaign that gathered significant momePicture1ntum, which ultimately deferred the amendment. Surendran cited another example of a campaign started by Rajeev Chandrashekhar, an independent MP, which aimed at improving access to voting facilities for soldiers of the Indian Army, in hard to reach areas. It gathered support of 77,000 citizens through the use of internet and mobile phones wherein a missed call to a provided number was counted as a signature on the petition.

 

Prukalpa Sankar identified an acute lack of social data as a recurring pattern across problems of urban governance in India such as waste management, traffic congestion, and poor road infrastructure. For example, when buying a house, the price of property per square feet is available, however information on sanitation rates, crime rates, and quality of public schools in street lights ranchithe area is missing. Social Cops, an organization that uses technology to engage citizens to solve various civic issues, observed an information gap between communities. In the city of Ranchi the problem of poor street lighting was addressed by a group of five university students as a part of the I Lead India Team, for Times of India. They went about crowd-sourcing information through mobile phones in order to identify and map out the dark spots of the city and got the deputy mayor of Ranchi on board to allocate INR.

 

2.15 crore to improve street lighting infrastructure. In another instance, the citizens of Punjabi Bagh, New Delhi, began to rate the cleanliness of their streets and Social Cops matched these ratings to corresponding safasafaikaramcharii karamcharis that work in the area through which an incentive system of awards for the workers was devised. According to Prukalpa, all it would take for citizens to contribute to filling the gaps in social data sets, engage with and participate in governance, is a smart phone.

 

The pervasive adoption of social and mobile media has supported various platforms through which citizen engagement and participatory governance can be facilitated. Sumeeta Banerji spoke about the future role of government in using these technologies for sustainable poverty reduction and human development. Greater citizen identification using ICT tools such as smart cards and biometric records can ensure greater participation, transparency and accountability. Sumeeta alluded to the potential in connecting both traditional and modern livelihoods with the market through technology that governments shoue-chaupalld explore. E-Chaupal is an example of an information service through which farmers get real time information on prices in the market, eliminate the role of middlemen and get better prices for their service.A project by UNDP facilitated NREGA women workers’ access to information regarding their entitlements under the scheme, through a voice-over technology based kiosk installed at Panchayat offices. In the light of the national election, technology could be used for election and voter awareness campaigns, as well as increasing transparency which is exemplified in the pilot project ‘paper audit trail’ through which we can see who are vote is going to as our ballot drops. Technological interventions, however rudimentary, can contribute to effective service delivery, citizen engagement, maintaining feedback loops and grievance redressal platforms.

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To allevate dissenition and distrust in governance, Anil Verma’s presentation advised government to follow suit to the private sector and adopt web 2.0. Anil astutely pointed to the need for a balanced act between open accesses to government data, and regulating access to sensitive information. Despite various instances of state government initiatives using ICT, such as E-Seva in Andhra Pradesh, FRIENDS project in Kerala, online property registration, and computerization of land records, the problem remains to be one of transparency and accountability. In 1999, the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) petitioned the goverfriendsnment for background data, including educational, criminal, and financial records, on electoral candidates, which was eventually made mandatory by the Supreme Court in 2003. The Chief Information Commissioner passed an order in July 2013, declaring that national political parties will come under the RTI, which garnered no response, despite them being issued multiple notices. The ADR has responded by using web 2.0 strategies to increase voter awareness, through, for example, the Election Watch Reporter, an app that allows citizens to forward a photograph of any election malpractice they observe to the Election Commission of India.

 

As of today, technologies of communication including those of speaking, writing, and listening are ubiquitous. Sumandro Chattapadadhyay discussed how these technologies need to be harnessed both by the citizenry, as well asthe government for democracy 2.0. The capacity to use and own these technologies is not uniform across the world. Government use of technology in specific ways for scanning and surveillance has significantly curtailed our democratic rights. Governments have created cases of exception, where democratic rights are upheld in some cases and not in others. The hardware of web 2.0 and internet technologies is concentrated at very specific points across the world in the form of undersea cables through which the internet runs. How the internet runs lies in the operations of organizations that we hardly have interactions with. This system doesn’t lend itself to democratic ideas. Sumandro indicated that if technology is to solve democracy, it is essential to see how democratic technology is to begin with.

Creating spaces for criticality toward the government and technologies are therefore important and in the absence of which there will always be spaces outside legality and orthodoxy, which will challenge these things. So it is imperative then to not only use technology in democracy, but to also bring democracy to technology.

*Pecha Kucha is the Japanese sound for ‘chit chat’, and is a unique presentation format that originated in Japan as an informal forum for young designers and architects to show and talk about their work, network with others, and have a conversation about art, design, architecture and more. Presenters/speakers show 20 image-only slides, for 20 seconds each, which makes for a rapid and energetic presentation. Pecha Kucha Night #26 was held on 17th April 2014, at the Vihara Innovation Campus, in New Delhi. It is run by Center for Knowledge Societies and the Adianta School off a license from Klein and Dytham Architects in Tokyo Japan.

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