Mzalendo tracks the performance of Kenya's Parliament by tracking votes, publishing records, and providing analysis and context.
Posted by David Sasaki on Jan 08, 2010
Mzalendo means "patriot" in Swahili. The project began at the end of 2005 with the mission to "keep an eye on the Kenyan Parliament." Co-founder Ory Okolloh explains that the idea for the project came about after the website for Kenya's Parliament was shut down following protests by some MPs who were embarassed about their CVs being published online. The initial goal of Mzalendo, then, was to provide the basic information that otherwise would have been available on the official parliamentary website. Kenya's parliament website is now back online - and much improved since its former 2005 incarnation - but Ory and Mark feel that they still have an important role to play in using online tools to hold Kenyan MPs more accountable.
"Beyond providing some level of scrutiny of Kenyan MPs," Ory writes, "we built Mzalendo to demonstrate that there is only so much bemoaning you can do about your representation." Rather, Mzalendo hopes to convince Kenyans - especially young, tech-savvy Kenyans - to engage with their MPs and current legislation. Unlike the profile pages of the official parliamentary website, Mzalendo allows users to leave comments on the profile page of each MP. (Though Ory notes that moderating comments and safeguarding against impersonation can be a time-consuming task.)
There was a sense of optimism around Mzalendo's ability to provide voters with pertinent information about their MPs in the run-up to the 2007 Kenyan general election. Several political aspirants made themselves available for interviews and discussions on the website and some online discussions which took place on the constituency profile pages turned into offline meetings focused on better policy and governance. That optimism, however, quickly turned into frustration when the contested presidential election between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga led to violence throughout much of the country. An estimated 800 – 1,500 Kenyans were killed and around 200,000 were displaced from their homes. It also led to a period of reduced activity on the website. Co-founders Ory and Mark each grew busy with other projects and Mzalendo remained essentially inactive throughout 2009. Now, with a small amount of seed funding from Omidyar Network, they are preparing to rebuild the website, enable mobile participation, and hire content producers to follow up on investigative stories related to corruption and the performance of MPs. Ory hopes that by the 2012 general election Mzalendo will have enough content to produce voter cheat sheets which rank incumbents by their participation and performance in parliament. "It’s one thing to tell people to make informed decisions," she says, "but that’s difficult when there is no information."
Lots of things. Time. The two of us both do this on a voluntary basis. We have received a bit of seed funding from OSI that we have used in the past to hire people to do some content for us. But just finding the time to keep the site going has been difficult. We had hoped when we started that a lot of bloggers would join us in terms of generating content and going to parliament to do reports, but that just didn’t happen. Also, attracting resources without becoming an NGO has been quite a challenge. There are a lot of people who are interested in supporting us and I guess that with a bit of funding we could do a lot more, but we’d have to become more formal. We thought we could be sustained by volunteers, but that clearly is not working. We think we are onto something good and potentially powerful, but how to build on it without becoming an NGO is a challenge.
Access to information has improved quite a bit, but it’s still not easy to crawl the documents automatically so there is still quite a bit of manual work that is involved. We also need to raise more awareness and make more connections between people who are online and offline.
First and foremost, the lack of transparency around Kenya's Parliament. We feel that it’s a public institution so Kenyans should be easily able to find out, for instance, how many times their MP’s attend parliament. Second was to convince Kenyans to get into the idea of demanding information rather than just complaining about politics without doing anything about it. The idea was to encourage Kenyans to ask questions about their members of parliament - what are they doing exactly. Ideally over time people would begin to base their decisions - especially during election time - on more than just who bribed them or who comes from a particular group or party, but rather who actually did work during the previous term.
I spent a lot of my early blogging career sort of highlighting all the ills of the government in Kenya and all the corruption and problems. One day I asked myself, well you’re sitting here with this voice and this platform and all your complaining is not really doing anything to make a difference then how can you - within this space - try to have a little bit of an impact. And I think that’s what drives me. 'Look, it’s time to stop complaining and start acting.' And I realized that it was not just a problem that was peculiar to me, but to many Kenyans. You know, I think that we watch news more than any other country that I’ve been to. We watch news like three times a night and we debate and we’re informed, but that’s where we stop. We don’t act. So Mzalendo has always been a challenge to me to say, 'OK, enough talking, some acting.'
I can’t claim that we’ve had a significant impact in Kenyan politics, but for the few people who have come to us and got something out of it - whether it was ten people, or just that group that was able to come together and connect offline, if I’m able to do that just by spending a couple hours a month on a website, to me that’s very rewarding.
Also, I guess that people look at me - and at us - as an example of what young people could be and what they could be doing. So part of it is a personal challenge to me, and part of it is hoping that we can inspire other young people who are concerned about Kenya to take some action.
Not really. I mean, in addition to putting that information online what we did was allow people to comment on their MP’s profile because people started sending in emails to us thinking that we communicated directly with members of parliament. And at one point we did have members of parliament coming directly and responding to questions that constituents had asked.
I’d say that the most tangible example of offline activity that happened was in the run-up to the 2007 election where two of the vibrant constituency profiles ended up meeting offline based on debates on the comment pages online. Also, we had a lot of political aspirants who were eager to get their profiles published on our website and were very accessible in terms of interviews and things like that.
I do know that there were at least two constituencies that developed groups that then met offline based on the discussions that took place on the website.
An hour a week, mostly just to clean up the comments. In the past probably an average of 5 − 10 hours a week.
The whole team is just me and Marc. In the past we have paid some freelance journalists to do some reporting and followup investigating for us.
Cleaning up comments. Making sure that people are not posting spam or flame wars or impersonating people. Before that, whenever we had to update the new parliament information we had to do that manually. So whenever there was a big change we had to enter all that information, which takes up a lot of time.
They’re pretty large documents and unless you’re a real political nerd, it’s tough to get through. When I first got my hand on the Hansard I realized it wasn’t going to be enough to just publish them on a website. The average person would not want to sift through the documents. So what we tried to do - and what we’ll continue to do when we rebuild the website - is extract the questions asked and answered so that you can see how many times your particular MP has spoken in parliament. At that time we had to do it manually because the only documents we got were PDF or Word documents that we had to then cut and paste into the website. They keep saying that they will make them XML and crawlable, which would make our lives easier. Anyway, so we tried to extract questions asked and answered to you could see how many times your MP has spoken and whether the government has responded to that particular question. We also tried to extract relevant debates to controversial issues and maybe do a blog post about that. We tried to unpack the data into pieces of information that made more sense to people.
We don’t. At that time we just didn’t have the capability of doing so. We would block IP addresses of people who were repeat offenders — although because many people access the computers through cybercafes, we were often running around in circles. We also allow people to flag abusive comments that we either delete of follow up on.
Well, we are in the process of re-doing the whole website to make it more interactive and keep the content up to date. I would say that in the past people would come back for the content. If they feel that they can come and participate in a generally constructive engagement with other commenters … I think that moderation is quite important in addition to just keeping the content fresh.
We basically relied on word of mouth or coverage that we got locally from other blogs. I did try to reach out to local civil society organizations to make them aware about us and to hopefully use us and refer people to us in the work that they’re doing, but I’d say that primarily it’s either through word of mouth or from people going to Google to look up information about their particular MP and we saw that a lot, especially around election time.
I’d say that the people who generally come to visit are often younger people. People in the diaspora are also very active - they are the type of people who often come online to look for information first. Our goal is to present information that is difficult to find anywhere else. We will try to provide a community environment because we tend to attract people from outside of the big cities were the local politician is more influential - like in rural constituencies where the politician pretty much determines their development. And those people do tend to be very passionate about local politics — so providing a forum where they can connect with other people is also important to keep them coming back.
Good writing. I have tried working with young journalists and stringers and I end up having to do quite a bit of editing and to direct them. But over time they do improve. I’d say good writing and good investigative skills. We could also use help with design skills. Mark is more of a coder. More graphics and pictures would help. Also, finding someone who can moderate discussions to keep the trash out without censoring is always difficult. Basically someone with good editorial skills.
For the short-term through grants, in the long-term if we build enough strong content we could probably monetise it, for example, by providing reports for donors who want are interested in local government monitoring, or doing consulting.
In the past we tried to work with Mars Group, but in the end they just wanted to replicate what we’ve already done. In the future we are going to try to work with Subnet which does a lot of work around Constituencies Development Fund (CDF) monitoring and to try to integrate their data with ours because we don’t have the resources to be present in each constituency.
The Constituencies Development Fund started five years ago to give each MP a budget to spend in his or her particular constituency on particular development projects. In principle it’s a great idea, but there is a lot of corruption that then goes on at the local level - in terms of projects not being completed or being done poorly. Or the CDF committee is filled with relatives of the MP. But we’ve found it to be a good entry point for getting people interested in corruption at the local level because it is something they can see. It’s close to them and tangible unlike the big scandals which are complicated and take place in Nairobi. The CDF is a good chance to get people debating and following up on accountability, corruption, and where the money goes. There is some good work going on tracking the spending - both positive and negative. There are some organizations, for example, highlighting the work of MP’s doing a good job with their use of the development funds.
We plan on integrating the database with an Ushahidi instance to allow people to receive mobile updates about their particular member of parliament.
Not on the record. Off the record, yes, with some MP’s who are aware of us, especially when we started and in the run-up to the election. You know, they think we’re an interesting project. The reception has not been negative. Some have said that they’d be willing to participate, but they are concerned about protecting their reputation once they do. And we did have a case where an MP was participating and then someone tried to impersonate him. So we have to figure out how to make it attractive for them to participate. But they also feel that most of their constituents are offline and any impact we have would be very minimal.
Once we start rebuilding the plan is to approach parliament again and see whether they’d be open to sharing information with us in terms of more regular access to their material. What we did during the 2007 election that we found to be quite helpful was to target people who were running because they tend to be much more likely to engage and much more open with the hope that if they are elected we can keep up the relationship.
Well, a freedom of information law has been pending for the last several years and that would change the default presumption when you approach any government office. Now something is secret unless it’s not, right. Or it’s official unless it’s not. Whereas with this law they would have to give you particular reasons for why they cannot share information with you.
For instance, something like the attendance records for parliament are secret. No one can tell me why, but only the sergeant of arms of the parliament keeps track of the registry so I can’t tell how many times my member of parliament has been to parliament. Or how much time he spends when he goes to parliament. Is it just a technical appearance? So with things like that - at least you can begin to fight that veil of secrecy or try to understand it. Right now the presumption is that everything is secret unless they deem it not secret, which makes it very difficult to get information.
Mars Group tried to do something similar. The parliament has revamped its website and it’s pretty decent now. Most of the groups that focus on parliamentary work are really around constituency development and not so much the performance of parliament. There was a group from SUNY - I think funded by USAID - that used to do monitoring of MP’s. They used to do a decent audit. Because they were collaborating with the Speaker of Parliament they had great access to parliamentary information, but it was in hard copy. I tried to get in touch with them a year or two ago and it doesn’t seem like they’re active anymore. But they used to produce a booklet and get quite a bit of coverage in the local newspapers.
I’d say that SODNET is doing a pretty good job monitoring around the constituency development funding and looking at how that money is being spent. Mars Group is doing good work around parliamentary debate of issues like the budget. Sort of examining how money is being channeled into non-developmental projects and sifting through dense documents and extracting information. Doing investigative work. Those are the two ones that come to mind. Then there is Transparency International, but they focus more on surveys and people’s perception of corruption.
Hire content people. First I’d get internet access for my partner in Nairobi because that has been a big issue. So get him internet access at home. Then I’d try to find you journalists who already work for other newspapers but are not paid that well and get them to do more content and investigative work for us. For example, if there is an interesting debate and someone says, “hey, in my constituency School X has not been build” then pay a journalist to take a trip to that constituency and do a followup story on it. I think that will eventually be a model for us. And, finally, find ways to do more offline outreach. Ideally if we get content that is good enough then produce one page flyers toward the election time that track, for example, how many times a candidate spoke in parliament, what type of questions did he ask, what’s his record on the CDF? Just a neutral voter cheat sheet card. I think that there is an organization that does something similar in the US. But basically a scorecard that lists tangible things.
You know, it’s one thing to tell people to make informed decisions, but that’s difficult when there is no information. So people say, "don’t vote just for your tribe or party," but there is no other information out there about the candidates. Ideally in the run-up to the 2012 election we’ll have enough content to produce one-page flyers or cards that civil society organizations can hand out to show the record of an MP based on his or her work in Parliament for that constituency.
So, for 2010 we have received a small grant from Omidyar Network to allow us to do some of the things that I’ve been talking about: basically to re-build and re-design the website, and to test out this idea of hiring people to do content for us. So 2010 will be about rebuilding and revamping the website, getting more traffic, and trying to raise awareness with local media. In 2011 we’ll be focusing on building the content and making the website more interactive to encourage more participation. We will make it easier for mobile participation. And, again, we'll focus on rebuilding this idea that you should care, and that you are just as responsible as the politicians are in terms of the state of Kenya. So, if you let them get away with stuff they will. It’s a challenging environment - our target group is very cynical after the 2007 election. We were also very cynical after the 2007 election, and I think that for a period of time the idea of pouring a lot of work and time into Mzalendo didn’t make sense if elections are still like that at the end of the day. But I think that we are re-energized now and we have to play our part and hopefully the rest will come together.