Can democracy stand a better chance with civic tech?

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“The region’s tech startups may not be setting up tents in public squares or painting their messages on street walls but they are providing their members with a space to join together, to act and express their voices in the public arena,” wrote Maryam Jamshidi in her book The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups.

The startups Jamshidi is referring to contribute to what has become knowns as ‘civic tech’.

Civic tech refers to platforms and online tools that make governments more accessible by informing citizens, as well as encouraging them to participate in the political decision making process. Civic tech can also facilitate in making tax payments.

Unlike social enterprises, this growing trend tends to have a political agenda that is enhanced through tech.

Unleashing the data

Data is the diamond of the decade - those who own the most of it, have the greatest power. But while power is centered at the top, civic tech allows government data to trickle down to average citizens in hopes of putting some power in their hands as well.

Before the internet, obtaining public information, like draft laws and government spending, was very difficult.

“Traditional open government was about requesting records from the government or going to an open meeting, but in the last ten years we saw this huge push around the world to open up electronic records and data,” explained Sara Welsh from the Civic Tech Leadership Program which caters to civic tech innovators from the MENA and the US.

With advanced machine learning and complex cloud technologies, governments and organizations now have no excuse for keeping their folders inside locked drawers.

Empowerment and accountability

Open government became a trend after the global Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011 to advocate for transparency and easy access to public information. More than 70 countries are now members, two of which are Arab: Jordan and Tunisia.

According to Bahraini civil rights activist Esra’a Al Shafei, one of the main ways open source data can be used is to keep communities alert about human rights abuses. “I don't think I could've done what I currently do effectively without the internet...  It changed civil rights activism by enabling us to widen our outreach efforts, collecting and disseminating data more efficiently,” she said.

Al Shafei is the founder of Majal, a series of online tools that aims to amplify underrepresented voices in MENA.

Public data is now open and digitized by some governments and civil society organizations on online portals where citizens can view and download raw or visualised datasets on topics like government expenditure, and number of public schools.

Regional examples include UAE’s open data portal, Tunisia election data, Haqqi for human rights in Jordan, and Qistas for legal information.

Internationally, the World Bank’s data portal includes numbers and statistics on country’s economic standings globally. The UN also has a data platform providing statistics from poverty to migration.

Opening up and organizing datasets can also be used as a way to monitor governance. For example, portals like Marsad Majles in Tunis and Marsad in Jordan document the details of parliamentary sessions and keep record of members’ of parliament questions during the sessions and attendance rates.

Citizens and government on one portal

Data is only the first step towards democratic civic engagement. Other civic technologies help equip citizens with adequate tools to participate in the decision making process of their local and national government by facilitating discussions between citizens and government officials.

Examples of the latter include Jordan’s Legislation and Opinion Bureau website which allows citizens to view and comment on draft laws. This is similar to France’s Parliament and Citoyens initiative.

Other tools allow citizens to participate in their cities’ budget allocation by submitting project proposals online, a concept known as participatory budgeting, or PB. An example is France’s Paris Budget Participatif.   

Civic tech also includes online forums dedicated to public debates such as Wael Ghonim’s Parlio, that got acquired by Quora, and Ahwaa, an open space developed by Al Shafei, to debate LGBTQ-related issues in the Middle East.

“Without amplifying the people’s voices, our silence becomes complicit in the persecution people face on a daily basis,” said Al Shafei.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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