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[liberationtech] No bar on this front: Technology can aid accountability (

Frederick FN Noronha फ्रेडरिक नोरोन्या *فريدريك نورونيا fredericknoronha at
Tue Jun 14 15:20:01 PDT 2011

No bar on this front: Technology can aid accountability

By Frederick Noronha

A BarCamp held in Gurgaon recently showcased a number of new initiatives
focused on technology, transparency and accountability, from ways to
minimise corruption in dealings with government to ways to track power cuts

Google plus techies,* jholawalas* and good intentions. What happens when all
mix on the ninth floor of a Haryana highrise? What emerges is a BarCamp that
happened in June 2011.

Don't get mislead by the term 'bar' in the name. Of course, Google's
cafeteria is generously stocked; but it's not about liquor. BarCamps are
user-generated conferences (or un-conferences). They're a less formal, or
quite informal, meet-up.

As the Wikipedia reminds us, the first BarCamps focused on early-stage web
applications, and were related to free software or open source technologies,
social protocols, and open data formats. The format has also been used for a
variety of other topics, including public transit, healthcare, and political

In Gurgaon -- the second-largest city in the Indian state of Haryana, some
30 km south of the Indian national capital of New Delhi, and one of Delhi's
four major satellite cities -- the BarCamp focussed on technology,
transparency and accountability.

It was held by Accountability Initiative, a research initiative that "aims
to improve the quality of public services in India by promoting informed and
accountable governance".

Founded in 2008, Accountability Initiative ( has been attempting to develop
innovative models for tracking government-led social sector programmes in
India. The Centre for Policy Research, a research institute and think-tank,
is the institutional anchor for this initiative.

"It is now widely accepted that greater transparency -- access to
information and data on the day-to-day functioning of government -- is key
to creating accountable and effective governance systems," argues
Accountability Initiative.

It says India's Right to Information Act (2005) has played a significant
role in strengthening transparency by "committing the government to both
pro-actively providing citizens with information and also responding to
specific information requests."

The Act has met with much success -- RTI applications are growing by the
day. But there still remain "concerns related to quality, and reliability of
information and data provided." Besides, there are still many gaps in the
government's efforts to proactively disclose information and data of public

"Technology is one of many tools that can help address these gaps. There are
some incredible initiatives taking place across the world on opening
government data and on getting data to work for ordinary citizens," argues
Accountability Initiative.

This BarCamp was aimed at creating a "platform for technologists to share
these technologies and contribute to the debate on strengthening
accountability and transparency."

Among the technologies and attempts on display were the Jan Lokpal Bill
(deliberative democracy and internet tools) with Paul Culmsee of

WikifyIndia ( is a new non-profit initiative,
run completely by volunteers, which seeks to "make interactions with the
government faster, less expensive and less prone to corruption". It does so
by providing complete and accurate information on procedures and collating
experiences (aggregating the wisdom of the crowds).

WikifyIndia is founded by Sohel Bohra and Anish Chandy. is an attempt at "strengthening the legislative process by
making it better informed, more transparent and participatory." Founded in
2005, the independent research initiative works with Members of Parliament
(MPs) across party lines to provide research support on legislative and
policy issues. "Our aim is to complement the base of knowledge and expertise
that already exists in government, citizens groups, businesses, and other
research institutions," it says.

Dinesh Shenoy has been part of Palantir. Palantir has developed
http://AnalyzeThe.US <> which allows anyone to to
explore vast amounts of data, including key datasets from It
allows anyone to develop a picture of the complex flows of resources, money,
and influence that affect how our government functions. This "democratises

Another participant, Vinay Kumar, is chief strategist at
It aims to improve the social, economic and environmental sustainability of
small farmer livelihoods. Explains Digital Green: "We aim to raise the
livelihoods of small-holder farmers across the developing world through the
targeted production and dissemination of agricultural information via
participatory video and mediated instruction through grassroots-level

Delhi-based Tuhin Sen is Lead Strategist at the Global Development Network,
and comes from a rich background in advertising. The GDNet knowledgebase is
a comprehensive internet portal to development research produced in
developing countries.

Other interesting ideas were there too. Siddharta Jain is promoting a
one-stop government portal. Pranesh Prakash of the Bengaluru-based Centre
for Internet and Society has promoted open data. Open data is the idea that
certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as
they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms
of control.

Raman Chima of Google offered an insight into the new tools for open-data
coming from a US multinational already known for Internet search, cloud
computing and ad technologies.

Aditya, Ritwik and Dhruv outlined their plans for an RTI (right to
information) portal. It's important that all the information emerging from
the government should be sharable and visible to all. Not just the person
making the query.

Gaurav Dhir believes open data can be used to build better cities, and
points to examples like Helsinki. IITian Shailesh Gandhi, RTI campaigner
turned central information commissioner, dropped hints on how technology
could make governance more transparent in India.'s Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya has a vision of using mobile
technology for making rationed-commodity supply to the poor more efficient,
and less leakage-prone.

eGovernments Foundation was set up in 2003 and is based in Bangalore. Manu
Srivastava and team offer products dealing with property, grievances,
financials, births and deaths, city websites, work, GIS, and infrastructure

NIC, the Government of India institution, has also undertaken e-panchayat
and a number of other initiatives, which have perhaps received less
attention than deserved. meanwhile aggregates, creates and disseminates data
and research about important civic issues facing Chennai, including issues
facing the poor.

Journalist Nikhil Pahwa raised issues of transparency and the media, while
Rishab Verma's theme was open data initiatives across the world. Other
themes ranged from the public information infrastructure (Sukhman Randhawa),
the national election watch online initiative (Trilochan Shastry), making
voting in India trustworthy, social accountability (Yamini Aiyar),
uncovering business and politics links (Rohit Chandra), among others.

One of the interesting if new initiatives is a mapping of power-cuts and
electricity failures across India. Using an East African-origin tool,
Ushahidi, Ajay Kumar set up the website, which simply yet
effectively notes where people are reporting power cut problems from.

Organisers of the BarCamp suggested that technology solutions could be
"significantly enhanced" if they are developed in consultation with "people
working on the ground, people who deal with the challenges of our current
governance systems in India".

Their BarCamp was intended to "initiate a conversation" between technology
specialists and people working on the ground. Through the camp, their goal
was to "create a space" where people can share their knowledge about how
best to "use new technologies to make our government really work for the

In Google's brightly-coloured cafeteria -- with even chairs in its "Google
colours" of bright red, yellow and blue -- ideas were shared and links
forged. The challenge would be to take such initiatives forward and keep
them going.

*Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based writer who focuses on technology and

*Infochange News & Features, June 2011*

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