We’ve all heard the jokes about how the extraordinary, instantaneous global connectedness created by social media is mostly used for sharing animal videos and snarky memes. There’s some truth in that. We’ve also seen how it has handed a megaphone not just to the previously voiceless, but also to the bad and the mad. It may sound very of the moment, but the internet has an image problem.
This is perhaps truest in the West, where relatively high living standards, long-embedded freedoms and an emphasis on individuality license a significant degree of leisure, self-indulgence and (usually anonymized) aggression. Those of us who live here inevitably focus our attention on the advances, limitations and cultural consequences of social media that emerge in our own society. But some of the most innovative and impactful uses of tech have come from less developed parts of the world, where the old battles for basic liberties are still being fought and where tech is a priceless tool against corruption and an over-powerful state.
One of the most impressive projects is ipaidabribe.com, set up in India in 2010 by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a non-profit organisation that works to tackle corruption by harnessing citizen participation. The site allows people to report on personal experiences of corruption – their nature, location, frequency and cost, which Janaagraha says it uses to “argue for improving governance systems and procedures, tightening law enforcement and regulation and thereby reduce the scope for corruption in obtaining services from the government.” The I Paid a Bribe site has recorded more than 146,000 reports in more than 1,000 cities, typically covering cash demands by local officials or police officers to provide services. The site also allows users to detail occasions when they refused to pay a bribe and dealings with ‘honest officers – the good guys in the system’. It has now spread beyond India, partnering with 30 other countries to create replica sites, and is the largest online crowdsourced anti-corruption platform in the world.
It’s perhaps no surprise that such a venture began in India, a fast-developing, tech-obsessed economy with global aspirations but grave corruption problems. The country’s population in its cities is over 400 million, but is expected to reach 800 million, 50% of its total population, by 2050. The most recent report from Transparency International had the country languishing in 79th place on its 176-strong corruption index, with Somalia coming bottom and Denmark, New Zealand and Finland taking the top three, least-corrupt spots (the UK was 10th, the US 18th). The lower reaches of the chart are, predictably, dominated by countries from the regions of Asia Pacific, Sub Saharan Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa.
In an interview, ipaidabribe’s founder, T.R. Raghunandan, neatly explained his thinking: ‘Corruption has a huge economic cost in India. First, where there is corruption, it makes legitimate transactions difficult. Second, it perpetuates misgovernance by destroying any incentive for the government to reduce red tape. As long as systems are slow and convoluted, government officials and politicians can demand bribes to make life easier. Third, it creates a system where distrust pervades our everyday life; where we are suspicious of our government and it is suspicious of us in turn. Fourth, the widespread manifestation of “petty” corruption breaks the spirit of ordinary people, who lose the stomach to fight and get used to enduring bad services and paying bribes to procure them. And, the fact that corruption creates wealth for a few through unjustified means also erodes our values and damages our lives in many ways.’
Janaagraha has since gone on to launch more online ventures aimed at improving citizenship and tackling misgovernance. ichangemycity.com is an initiative aimed at building networks of communities and local civic bodies, providing data on urban issues and boosting civic awareness. Public Eye is an app for citizens to report traffic violations, and was developed in collaboration with the Bengaluru Traffic Police. Since its launch in 2015 it has received over 90,000 traffic complaints, with a 64% resolution rate. Swachhata is an app for citizens to report garbage hotspots, and was developed in partnership with the central government. In just over a year it has hosted more than six million complaints across 1,500 cities. More than 4,000 engineers are trained to use it to resolve complaints in real time, and 500,000 dumps have been cleared across hundreds of cities in less than a year.
Given the level of voter disaffection in the West, one might argue that we have much to learn from these tech innovations and how they are driving greater civic engagement and government responsiveness. Writing in the new edition of the Oxford Government Review, published by the Blavatnik School of Government (and edited by me), Janaagraha’s CEO Srikanth Viswanathan puts it like this:
‘Civic technology will be a transformative change agent when accompanied by three ingredients: systematic civic learning, neighbourhood-level community organising and government adoption. Civic learning is necessary to move citizens through the ladder of citizenship from passive to an interested participant. Neighbourhood-level community organising and civic technology can reinforce each other. While civic technology can enable neighbourhood-level platforms for citizen participation through customised applications, such platforms are necessary to throw the citizenship net wider and engage larger number of citizens. Government adoption of civic technology is a game-changer, irrespective of whether the government builds its own platform or adopts independent third-party platforms. Government responsiveness is key to sustaining citizen engagement in civic technology platforms. In an increasingly urban democracy with exponential mobile and data penetration, governments are increasingly adopting technology to connect with citizens even if as a signal of political proactiveness.’
It’s worth remembering that more and more of the world’s populations are expected to live in cities in the decades ahead.
Perhaps the closest we come in the UK to this form of bottom-up changemaking is when Twitter acts as a focus for public will – think of the #metoo campaign that has so raised the profile of sexual abuse and impropriety in recent weeks. The safety in numbers that comes with this crowd-sourcing of experience and opinion is not unlike what we see with ipaidabribe. Parliament’s petition scheme, where individuals can petition parliament to debate and take action on specific issues, seems rather lame in comparison.
There will be many great, jaw-dropping moments as the tech revolution unfolds, but we shouldn’t ignore the ability to better use what already exists. In this time of deep public cynicism about politicians, governments and other elites, we could do worse than look to India for an example in how to bridge the gap.