Appropriating Technology to Fight Corruption
Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. The range of corruption is vast, from government officials demanding relatively petty payments and police taking bribes, right up to politicians taking huge kickbacks on oil and arms deals.
In the UK this year we have seen police take bribes from newspapers, members of parliament jailed for fiddled their expenses, right up to banks fixing the Libor rate and claims that airlines, gas and petrol companies are corruptly fixing prices. Bringing those with power to account can be a difficult, sometimes dangerous, and long-drawn-out affair.
All over the world however citizens are fighting back, using new technology to shine a light on fraud and bribery, and to blow the whistle on corrupt practices.
Angered by the rampant corruption of their politicians and judiciary, young Egyptians founded an online citizen monitoring movement called Shayfeen. Using off-line organising, radio and press alongside social media channels Facebook, YouTube, podcasts and SMS, campaigners successfully mobilised public discontent to force government back down and created an Integrity Commission to oversee implementation of anti-corruption efforts.
In Nigeria the anti-corruption internet database (Acid) has pulled together data and information, tools and resources, and forged a coalition of players to fight the corruption that pervades society. Their website provides the means to track corruption in public procurement, hosts downloadable training and advocacy materials and interactive tools to enable members of the public to text or tweet reports of corrupt activities live onto Google Maps to raise awareness and to shame perpetrators.
Citizens are actively mapping corruption in their cities worldwide using free and open-source tools like Ushahdi & Open Street Maps as this presentation shows. However, creating a virtual map is insufficient. Collective action over a sustained period is necessary for effecting transformational change. Mapping corruption is a valuable resource that provides evidence of locations and frequencies but these are only the raw materials for an effective process leading to social change. What researchers like Sabina Panth have documented is that the most successful interventions require simultaneous efforts on three fronts - investigation, prevention, and public education.
Sabina's research provides a wealth of case studies, including India's famous "I Paid a Bribe", that demonstrate that while IT can play a supporting role in all three areas, what is critical is strength and resilience of the anti-corruption organisation's human skills in leadership, coalition-building and public advocacy.
There is of course no quick technical fix for systemic, institutionalised corruption. Changing entrenched expectations and behaviour can be a daunting task. Yet determined citizens intent on change now have an increasing number of tools and examples of practice to draw upon. Experience so far points to the importance of a combination of off-line and online methods in overall anti-corruption strategies.
Hacking corruption has already resulted in laws being changed, in corrupt officials being jailed, and most importantly in ordinary people regaining free access to the medical, educational and other public services to which they are rightly entitled. These are important gains and are worth fighting for, yet more urgently needs to be done.
One practical way that coders and developers can pitch in to help is through participating in anti-corruption hackathons coordinated by organisations like Transparency International. Hackathons are intensive collaborative workshops where activists and geeks work together to hack together the kind of new tools that networks on the ground use in their anti-corruption work.
N.B. A version of this post first appeared in my monthly column in ComputerWeekly in December 2012.