Crowdsourcing International Development Transparency



"Citizens of Sarpallo VDC in Mahottari district waiting for the VDC office to open."

The money was supposed to buy bicycles for ten girls attending public school in Mahottari, Nepal. The head of the village government allocated 150,000 rupees—about $1,400—for the project, which he said would encourage girls from the marginalized Dalit (so-called “untouchable”) community to attend school. An auditor signed the paperwork and the money left the government’s coffers.

“Not a single student in the village got a bicycle,” says Pranav Budhathoki, the founder and CEO of the Local Interventions Group. Budhathoki received an anonymous report of the missing funds during the pilot of an anti-corruption project he is looking to launch throughout the country of Nepal. He immediately sent his regional representative, a respected journalist in Mahottari, to find out what happened to the money.

Budhathoki is trying to curb corruption in Nepal by publishing information about local government budgets—about where money should have gone—and then eliciting feedback from citizens about what projects actually happened. In urban, wealthy contexts, people can use smartphones and apps to crowdsource information about corruption, but Budhathoki knew that wouldn’t work in rural, undeveloped parts of Nepal. So he came up with an alternative: People could submit reports of corruption using very simple tools—text messages and phone calls—and he would use technology on the back end to aggregate, analyze, and publish the data. This is the key to development, he says: not to increase funding or develop new projects, but rather to give citizens the information and the tools they need to demand accountability.

“The problem is not resources,” he explains. “The problem is citizens not knowing how much the government has allocated in their name.” To solve the problem of corruption, he says, it’s necessary for people to be “engaged and involved and reporting what they see around them, the malpractices and corruption issues.”

According to Budhathoki, the Nepali government sends money to Village Development Committees to address every imaginable social injustice, but “up to 60 percent of that allocated budget gets sent back to national coffers because the local governments don’t spend it,” he says. Local news reports corroborate that claim. As a result, Budhathoki says, “health centers are running without medicines and doctors, and kids are attending schools with no books or teachers.”

Budhathoki founded the Local Interventions Group in September 2011. Since then, he’s launched an app aimed at reducing police abuses and increasing police effectiveness and has used the open-source software Ushahidi to address cheating and violence in the 2013 Nepali elections and to ensure that earthquake relief services and supplies reached the right people after this year’s earthquake. His newest project tackles corruption head-on by publishing information about budgets and then crowdsourcing reports of corruption. He ran a pilot project last year in two of Nepal’s 75 districts, and, over the next two years, he plans to scale up the program so it will reach the entire country.

Here’s how it works: First, the Local Interventions Group’s regional representatives, all well-connected reporters, ask government officials how much money was earmarked for, say, schools or clinics in a certain area. Then, the Local Interventions Group crowdsources reports about what is needed, what is being done, and the quality of the work.

During a three-month pilot, Budhathoki solicited reports in each of three categories: absenteeism of local officials, misspent or disappeared development funds, and missing pension payments. At “Mobile Help Desks,” volunteers gathered information from text messages and phone calls. Budhathoki received 1,300 citizen reports. Then, the regional representatives verify the reports with local government officials and threaten to make the information public unless the grievance is resolved. Over the course of the three months, the Local Interventions Group verified about 600 to 700 genuine, specific, and actionable reports.

Take the bikes for female students, for example. Budhathoki’s contact in Mahottari took the report of the stolen bicycle funds to the district government. “Within three days, he got a call from the chief district official,” Budhathoki says. The Village Development Committee secretary admitted responsibility and promised to return the money. It took three more months, but “the 150,000 rupees was finally returned back to the national coffers,” Budhathoki says. No girls have gotten bicycles, since there’s a new government with new priorities in office, but the money is back where it belongs.

As Budhathoki scales up his anti-corruption project to the entire country of Nepal, he hopes to streamline his interactions with the government. His NGO will collect, vet, and verify grievances; map them onto a GIS platform; and then share the reports both with government officials and civil society organizations. That way, “each district official, head of the village government, [will] see these reports at his desk, on his computer, early morning every day so that he can talk to his colleagues on the ground and do something about that,” Budhathoki says.

Several researchers who have investigated anti-corruption programs say such collaboration is the key to success. Carla Miller is the founder and president of City Ethics, a nonprofit that aims to help local governments develop programs to prevent corruption, and has prosecuted federal corruption cases involving elected officials. She’s found that anti-corruption programs entirely internal to the government with no line to citizens can themselves be corrupted, while citizen groups can lose momentum and don’t necessarily understand the inner workings of government. “Ultimately, you have to have communication, collaboration,” she says.

The spirit of collaboration with government officials was behind Budhathoki’s decision to take down a map of crowdsourced corruption reports he’d initially published on the Local Interventions Group’s website. “We put it up for a month and then we shut it down because the government was getting antsy because they didn’t want citizens to know there’s a lot of corruption in the government agencies,” Budhathoki says. “Of course everyone knows that there’s a lot of corruption in government agencies at the local level but they didn’t want that to be up on the website for everyone to see.”

So, in the end, Budhathoki came to the conclusion that taking the map down was the right decision. “We’re okay with that because my approach has been collaborating with government officials rather than confronting them,” he says—and, now, he adds, he can walk into government offices and say, “Alright, let’s try to change something on the ground.”

This is a controversial approach. Some analysts, such as Miller, agree that taking down the map was the right call. “Maps of corruption and press and then a reaction from the government” is just a short-term solution, she says, that “doesn’t integrate citizens into long-term planning and identifying those issues faster.”

Yuen Yuen Ang, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, has looked at the platform I Paid A Bribe, which crowdsources reports of corruption in India, and similar platforms in order to identify what works and what doesn’t. She agrees that working with the government should be Budhathoki’s priority.

“Budhathoki made a pragmatic choice in agreeing to the government’s request—which, importantly, was a request, not a demand,” she wrote in an email. “By doing so, he avoids antagonizing the government, making it more likely for state authorities to work with his organization to take concrete steps in fighting petty corruption.”

“The purpose [of crowd-sourcing initiatives] is not to shame the government or individual officials, because, as Budhathoki himself points out, everybody already knows there is a lot of corruption,” she adds.

The Local Interventions Group isn’t combating corruption within elite circles, which Ang says would call for a political response, but rather what Ang refers to as “petty corruption”—that is, “low-stakes, diffused corruption that directly affects the lives of regular citizens.” Changing out government officials has no effect on small-scale corruption, Ang says, since it’s a systemic problem. Instead, the best way to approach the problem is through procedural changes: for example, “reducing bureaucratic discretion, centralizing budgetary management, reforming public compensation practices, etc.”

Budhathoki was able to make such a collaborative procedural change when it came to paying pensions. During his pilot, he found many people didn’t get their pensions on time, or at all. The government officials decided that, when the next month of pension payments came due, they’d have the Local Interventions Group’s regional representatives oversee the process, verifying who was owed a pension and who received one. That way, “we know how much money is being given to whom,” Budhathoki says. “The whole process [is] transparent.”

That’s the kind of change he hopes to continue to make in the future. “That happened because we’re seen as partners,” he concludes.

Civic Hacking Hackathon International Development



As facilitators working with a vulnerable population, we could have better anticipated and mitigated the chilling effect of the media. Here are seven things organizers can do to better protect privacy during a workshop.

I don't want to be photographed. (Josh Levinger)

Civic hackathons, those technology-driven sprints for good, are both popular and potentially problematic. They can be exciting, stirring passions around important social issues. They offer the promise of improving lives. But they also risk squandering resources, producing tools that are often quickly abandoned, or at worst create unintended harm.

common and valid criticism of hackathons is that they often rely on technologists with little or inaccurate knowledge of the selected cause.

Ask a bunch of upper-middle-class 20-somethings to improve access to healthy food, and you’ll invariably end up with a grocery store map. A person living in a food desert might have instead pointed out that the barriers to healthier eating are logistical, economic, and cultural, not purely informational. A food justice advocate might have suggested advancing substantial policy changes for long term gains. But at most hackathons—which generally run between six hours to a full weekend—time feels too short for such deep dives, and the need to produce a product can take priority over making sustainable impacts.

Making effective use of a hackathon’s focused, skilled, and cheap labor requires a more informed and humble approach. Anticipating this, some organizers recruit and engage participants with experiences that can inform the technical work. This focus on listening, questioning, and context is a great evolution, but, especially when dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable populations, it introduces new risks.

Last month, I facilitated a portion of the Refugee Hackathon in Berlin, Germany. The event spanned three days, gathering nearly 300 developers and refugees to exchange ideas and create tools that ease the experience of being a refugee in Germany. It was the perfect combination of pertinent politics and optimistic technology; in short, it was a total media spectacle.

A key strength of the hackathon was the involvement of people with actual refugee experience—people who either were themselves refugees to Germany or who volunteer with newcomers. Theirs’ was a unique and powerful story, and its retelling has influence beyond one humble hackathon. But as the event unfolded, it became clear that maintaining a safe space for these vulnerable people to fully participate conflicted with the media presence.

The image of the noble technologist uplifting the helpless refugee (to apply a lazy stereotype) supports valuable narratives for many. The technologists get to look like heroes, with a new project for their portfolios. The event organizers receive attention for their popular event, which bolsters their credentials. Members of the media profit directly from collecting interviews and photos, as this is their job. But also indirectly, the mainstream German community benefits as it consumes this positive coverage, allowing them to feel like the crisis is being addressed.

Media coverage for a feel-good event is good for many, but how does it affect the people this event was intended to support—in this case, the refugees? Many participated on the explicit understanding that they would not be named, photographed, or filmed. These people came to Berlin to escape violence, leaving friends and family back home. I heard from several individuals worried that if those violent actors could identify them as having fled, friends and family they left behind would become targets. As facilitators, it was our duty to manage these priorities and craft an appropriate space.

We offered a “photo opt out” system. We provided red stickers, which, if put on a name tag, identified the individual as someone who did not consent to being photographed. We posted several signs explaining this system at registration and around the workshop spaces in four languages and with language-agnostic iconography. The facilitators took several opportunities to remind the room not to photograph people with red stickers. We asked the individuals with privacy concerns to raise their hands so everyone would know to avoid them in photos.

We also instructed the group that we would be following Chatham House Rules:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

These rules are very popular at workshops where delicate information is to be shared, because it allows people to engage fully in the conversation.

In spite of these precautions, we still encountered several instances of worrisome media behavior. Some reporters were very respectful, chatting easily and maintaining a comfortable atmosphere. Others either missed the precautionary notices, or simply chose to disregard them. Eventually, two core issues emerged: obtaining informed consent and minimizing disruptions.

With so many media seeking group photos, the red sticker opt-out system quickly became difficult to enforce. When photographers did seek consent, the consent was not always informed.

One incident occurred when a reporter invited a French-speaking refugee to be photographed. Echoing a broader issue of underestimated diversity among Germany’s refugees, we had not anticipated the need to support French translation, so communicating with these refugees was problematic. The refugee asked where the photos would appear, the volunteer translator used his basic French to communicate an answer, and the refugee left with the reporter. Interestingly, the translator was not invited, because the journalist had no interest in what his subject had to say. Instead, the reporter posed the man outside for a few generic photos of a downcast refugee. Later, the refugee became concerned: he had understood that the photographer worked for the event organizers and did not want his photos published by a reporter. The translator flagged down a facilitator, and the photographer ultimately relented and deleted the photos. Effectively, the refugee hadn’t known what he was consenting to do, and the photographer hadn’t been clear about the potential consequences.

Even among the main language groups, the conspicuous cameras and frequent requests to “borrow” refugees and project managers led to constant disruptions. Remember: the explicit purpose of this workshop was to learn about the refugee experience firsthand from the refugees, identifying specific requirements and possible interventions. Allowing press to coerce participants into being “shared” soured the mood for many, and reduced the effectiveness of the event overall. The refugees weren’t the only ones visibly uncomfortable with the media presence—twice I overheard conversations among developers abruptly conclude or shift when a large television camera rolled up.

As facilitators, we could have better anticipated and mitigated the chilling effect of these reporters, writers, and photographers. Learning from these experiences, here are seven things organizers can do to protect privacy during a workshop.

      1. Offer an opt-out indicator that is very visible. We gave out stickers. We asked people opting out to raise their hands in front of the group. We gave polite but firm reminders when we saw violations. But still, we ended up spending a lot of time enforcing this system, instead of focusing on facilitating better outcomes. Our tiny stickers could have been much bigger. We could have given out red t-shirts, or at least a different color lanyards.


        These identifiers should be visible if their wearer is across the room or turned away, and they should stand out in accidental photographs to ensure proper deletion.

      2. Ensure consent is both sought and informed every time. If there’s a risk the meaning isn’t wholly understood, take the time to find a better explanation. All photos can wait.
      3. Discourage people from opting out of photos for solidarity. This one is controversial, and deserves discussion. Everyone should want to support people who need to opt-out from photography, but as I experienced it, we can’t do that by diminishing the seriousness of those requests. I attended an event years ago where only one person opted out. We paused to wave at him, and he stood behind the camera for group photos. Because he was easy to remember, we all scanned the room to find him before taking any photo, ever. We made it easier to take safe photos by reducing the number of people to actively avoid photographing.
      4. As a participant, support opt-out requests. If someone prefers not to be photographed, actively locate them as being outside your frame before snapping a photo. Keep an eye out for cameras at the event, and help review photos on social media later. If you see a consent violation, either intervene politely and firmly, or seek out a facilitator.
      5. As a facilitator, empower your team both to enforce privacy requests and minimize disruptions. You want your participants to feel comfortable handling or reporting issues, and you want your team to feel comfortable taking appropriate action.
      6. Allow for non-disruptive media engagement. If you expect a media presence, carve out time, space, or people where press can safely participate. Media access does not need to be a default.
      7. Anticipate how skewed media access could misrepresent your event. A few of our participants arrived with fully formed projects, and put the time we dedicated to listening to refugees towards courting the media. As a result, projects with the least refugee input came to occupy a disproportionate amount of exposure from the refugee-legitimized event.

Hackathons can be fun, inspiring, or challenging, and it’s natural for people to want to capture these experiences. As the hackathon model continues to evolve, and acknowledges the diversity of experiences needed for success, privacy and safety must become key operating principles.

Ruth Miller is a facilitator, interaction designer, and researcher based in Oakland, California.

International Development Tech Culture



The problem with first world problems, and why we need to shift the way we talk about global tech

Sahal Gure Mohamed, 62, texts on his mobile phone while waiting in line at dawn to register at Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. (Internews Europe/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There are #firstworldproblems, and there are #thirdworldproblems. When it comes to communications technologies and phones, there are the problems of being a human being in the 21st century. Recent articles about the role of mobile phones for migrant and refugee communities have unleashed a torrent of tweets and articles: If they are so in need for help, why do refugees have phones? How can they possibly be that desperate if they can afford a data plan?

I used to joke about #firstworldproblems myself, but after seeing misunderstandings like these, I stopped.

To be fair, these are good questions if your image of technology is that of luxury and distraction, and if your image of refugees is stuck in 20th century imagery of destitution. But travel the world over, and the role of mobile phones is clear: They are as essential as clothes, money, food and water. They help people stay in touch for business and family reasons. They have maps. They can help people take notes and share those notes across long distances. They have music. They are more affordable than clean, running water and more portable than a suitcase. In a mud hut in East Africa, a crowded bus in Southeast Asia, by the river in rural China, phones and their capabilities can improve the lives of many, both for utilitarian and emotional purposes. They are the Swiss Army Knives of the 21st century.

This misunderstanding is unfortunate but not uncommon when it comes to narratives about the global south. When President Obama boarded a plane for a state visit to Kenya, CNN described the country as a “hotbed of terror.” This was not the first time broadcast media made a sweeping generalization about the country, and Kenyans on Twitter quickly revived the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN to draw attention to the absurdity. In previous years, such as during the 2013 elections, hashtags such as this one and #TweetLikeAForeignJournalist drew attention to outdated generalizations about life in the country. This past year, the hashtag jokes even prompted a visit from CNN’s managing editor, who publicly apologized for the mis-characterization.

A similar flurry of misguided articles erupted recently around Taylor Swift’s concert tour in China. A rumor emerged that Swift’s t-shirt line, bearing the phrase “T.S. 1989,” would be repurposed as a thinly veiled reference to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. Article after article in English-speaking press suggested there would be heavy censorship of the shirts online and that the tour itself might even be canceled. Nothing of the sort was happening inside the country. Writing in Vox, Max Fisher identified the source of the confusion: it’s hard to see past the story of censorship in China and imagine the daily lives of young people living under censorship and enjoying pop music from around the world.

I think of the examples above as symptomatic of a larger problem: we have what author Claire Light has called a failure of our global imagination. And by “we,” I mean those of us living and working in privileged Western contexts, far removed from the daily lives of those living in places of war, censorship, and rapid industrialization. We can imagine the general experiences and emotions that these words evoke—fear, doubt, uncertainty, excitement—but we cannot imagine the ins and outs, the everydays, the way people live under circumstances very different from our own.

This failure can have devastating consequences. Empathy is founded in our ability to see ourselves in the lives of others, to understand their pain and suffering and respond with compassion. If we cannot imagine the lives of others very different from ourselves, we cannot empathize with their joys and sorrows, and if we take as a frame of reference our own experiences, we cannot deeply engage with others’ lived experiences. If we assume that phones are frivolous, luxury devices for playing games and getting distracted at the dinner table, we cannot imagine how critical they are for helping people find their way to nearby safe points—and then we overlook the need to distribute prepaid SIM cards alongside water bottles. If we assume that transparency and openness are universal goods, we cannot imagine how that openness can be terrifying for a queer person trying to live safely and with dignity in a country with anti-LGBT legal structures—and then we enact Terms of Service and user experiences that promote the very thing (visibility) that can make their lives more dangerous.

The world has long been interconnected. If yesterday’s globalization was one of mass production and distribution of objects and a one of political relations, the globalization of today is that of people to people. Thanks to increased mobility and, more broadly, global internet connectivity, we are more in touch with the images, words and narratives of people living in parts of the world we may have never heard of and heard from. A tweet in Spanish can spark surprise in the English-speaking world, and an image meme made on China’s Sina Weibo can slowly wind its way over to Egyptian Facebook. A lot of people are finding voice, but it’s just as important—if not more so—that with this interconnectedness, those of us with greater privilege and access understand our own responsibility to listen and, where appropriate, amplify.

How can we change this? How can we transform our global imaginations to understand the rich diversity of human life and living in the 21st century? While travel outside major tourist zones can help, scaling that up for all people can be difficult, if not impossible. The tourist industry makes it easy for people with means to skip over to new cities, but it also cloaks the diversity of local life and living, something that takes time, language skills, and patience to understand and experience.

More importantly, for those of us who have the privilege of accessing diverse global experiences, we need to shift the narrative. And we need to listen and reflect the stories of others’ lives more effectively. Here’s how I think we can do that.

Writers about tech need to nuance the narrative. New tech has different effects on different people, and not everyone is a middle class Westerner. Every time we trot out the tired argument that selfies are a form of narcissism, we limit our perspectives on the vast diversity of creative production enabled by new and networked technologies like smartphones. There is no doubt that some selfies for some people serve a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing purpose. But selfies can be a form of advocacyof creating visibility for underrepresented people, of simply connecting with family and friends back home (sometimes “home” is thousands of miles away). It can seem puzzling to see refugees arriving on the coasts of Greece with selfie sticks, but what better way than a selfie to tell family and friends back home that you’ve made it back safely and in good spirits?

The broader dialogue in Western media and intellectual culture must stop critiquing technology’s effects on society with a lens that seems to focus largely on middle class Americans and Western Europeans. Phones can certainly distract from in-person conversations, but they can also facilitate vital connections amongst a global diaspora. When we broadly apply critiques of technology to everywhere and every context, we overlook important discourses around justice, intent and power. We need to understand how technology is used in different cultures and for those with limited resources, and we need to remember positionality when it comes to how people use technology.

We need to tell the human stories of the next billion. Really tell them. Use photos. Use stories. Use videos. It’s not enough to talk about the “next billion” in abstract, like an opportunity to reach teeming masses of people ripe for monetization. We need to understand their lives and their priorities with the sort of detail that can build empathy for other people living under vastly different circumstances. A common misperception I’ve heard about refugees fleeing their country is that they probably wouldn’t prioritize their phones. And yet, it’s almost certain that anyone in a natural disaster in San Francisco would grab their smartphones. How else will they call their families, access resources, alert the authorities?

Can we shift narratives about the developing world to talk about building agency through technology? To talk about connecting once-disconnected communities through technology? Can we move past the sweeping discussions of marketing and monetization opportunities for the next billion and learn more about what motivates them to use the internet and phones in the first place? It’s one thing to share photos of a solar-powered cell phone in the Sahara; it’s quite another to tell the story of the music the phone’s owner listens to and how he uses the texting feature to stay in touch with family while he travels.

It’s time to abandon the First World/Third World dichotomy. Whether or not this dichotomy was a helpful one at some point in the past, it’s no longer helpful now. The “Third World” has glittering skyscrapers and glowing smartphones, and the “First World” has decaying neighborhoods and entire swaths of the country without broadband. There are very real and important differences between rich and poor countries, and these dynamics play out at the level of international relations, all the way down to the mundane and often humiliating work of applying for visas. But this framing creates a divide that limits our capacity to understand the vast spectra of the way human beings live in the 21st century. I don’t yet have a better vocabulary for this, but I hope someone smarter than me can figure that out. For now, I do use the phrases “developing world,” “global south,” and “poor countries,” but I’d like to have a better framework. Any suggestions?

Remember the diversity of ways we use communications technology: that includes connecting with people we care about and depend on. In contrast to narratives about vanity, slacktivism, and luxury when it comes to tech in the middle-class West, so much of the conversation about technology in the global south focuses on information and practical communications, like around agricultural trends and educational material. This is good and important work. But highly pragmatic use cases are just part of the reason anyone has used communications technology. Informal markets from Asia to Africa are filled with music and movies, like a Bluetooth-powered Napster, and people are just as likely to send text messages and Facebook posts to check in with friends and loved ones as they are to access important healthcare information and market reports. These things can coexist.

Like a city, the internet and mobile phones provide for a vast diversity of human needs, which include the basic human need for companionship, support, and access to joy in the face of suffering. Fortunately, this part of the global imagination doesn’t require too much effort: Just think of how everyone you know uses technology, the number of apps, the different ways they laugh, smile, cry, and scowl at what they see behind those plates of glass.

Shifting the narrative is such a critical part of the motivation behind my work with global internet cultures, and the above are just a few ideas for how I think we can do that. But more important than trying to know everything about the world is establishing a culture of knowing that we don’t know. The assumption that we can parachute into a foreign culture with formal expertise and knowledge and make things better has never been acceptable, and it has led to a lot of unnecessary suffering, especially in colonized countries. The fact that people in marginalized parts of the world can now call out misguided attitudes and perceptions about them will go a long way, and those of us with access to media and policy can do well to amplify and extend these voices.

But it is also not possible to know every detail about other people’s lives. Attention is limited, as is time. We can learn everything we can about the day to day of rural Laos, but the conflict in Mali will seem completely opaque. Instead, it’s more important to know that we don’t know, know that we need to listen to those who have greater familiarity, and to know that there are ways to go further. Adopting an attitude of humility and curiosity can take us much farther than an attitude of assuredness and assumption. This seems to me like a good place to start—and if you have other and better ideas, I’d love to hear them.