I really enjoyed my time at the Berkman Center/Sunlight Foundation meeting earlier this week, but felt a little out of place. Sunlight’s focus is primarily on transparency in US government, especially on the role of money in Congress. My interest in tools for political transparency tends to be on developing nations, and while some of the tools built for one environment work in another environment, a lot of the projects described during the Sunlight conference won’t translate easily into a developing world environment.
I used my (brief) lunchtime talk to try to get some of the attendees focused on the way political activists in the US and the developing world could learn from one another. I tried to make the point that this learning needed to be symetrical – it’s a mistake to assume that American activists will always be teaching developing world activists to use tools developed for the US, and it’s a missed opportunity for US activists not to learn from activists in developing nations.
I outlined four projects that I take inspiration from:
– Bahrani activists using Google Maps to document land use. An anonymous Bahrani activist created a set of maps, distributed by PDF, which highlighted cramped urban neighborhoods and contrasted their size to palaces built for members of the ruling family. The fact that Bahrain responded by (briefly) blocking access to Google Maps suggests that the government found the document troubling and wanted to prevent other activists from doing similar sorts of GIS-based protest.
– Sami Ben Gharbia‘s Tunisian prison map. By plotting the location of documented and secret prisons on a Google Map, Sami offers a powerful graphic representation of the reach of a repressive government, linking to information and video about the dissidents held at these sites.
– Ory Okolloh’s Mzalendo project. Ory mentioned in a comment on one of my posts that she’s interested in the tools outlined here, but that the lack of data in Kenya means that her project to increase transparency around the Kenyan government is dealing with different challenges. I mentioned that Ory’s techniques for getting data about Kenya’s parliament – being given documents from geeks who built the parliamentary website, or from parlimanetary insiders, encouraging bloggers to visit parliament and blog their experiences – should inspire democracy activists in the US.
– The ZCTU video of a failed street protest in Harare. By clandestinely filming the failed ZCTU protest and filming activists after the fact in the hospital, ZCTU supporters created a document that’s a stunning indictment of the Mugabe government.
My point in outlining these projects was to point out a) that the problems people were facing in these nations are significantly different from the problems we’re addressing in the US and b) that activists’ ability to adapt tools to solve these problems should be a source of ideas and inspiration to US activists.
I get the sense that the sort of gathering we had at Harvard was extremely useful for domestic political activists, letting them learn about other related projects, or about fellow travellers. I’ve got high hopes that a future meeting of this sort could include some of the inspiring projects I mentioned above and could help build conversation between activists in different parts of the world. I hope that as Sunlight celebrates its success in bringing increased transparency to US politics that a global focus is a forthcoming step.