Vota Inteligente aims to use technology provide Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials.
Posted by David Sasaki on Jan 06, 2010
There are several problems. More generally I would say that it has to do with democratic development, which can be further broken down into more specific tasks. One of those tasks is to provide greater accountability in a system which is lacking information. And so to provide information to citizens and NGOs who can hold politicians accountable. And, actually, much of this information is out there, somewhere. It’s in some PDF somewhere in the website of Congress. Or it is in some quote that some journalist took from some politician. What we did was organize all of that information that was out there and make it more accessible to citizens. So the first task was to fill that gap of information so that individual citizens or NGOs might exercise accountability.
But also I think that the issue of confidence in political institutions is very important. And confidence in politics. One of the main diseases of Latin America has to do with this increasing lack of confidence in the political system, and the increasing lack of confidence in democracy. So, for example, if you look at the data from last year’s Latino Barometer, nearly half of the Latin American population doesn’t care if they live in a democracy or not as long as their economic problems are solved. That’s a concern; that is a trap in the longterm. I think that one of the missions that the Smart Citizen Foundation - and also several other NGO’s - is to tackle the problem of the lack of confidence in political institutions. That confidence doesn’t just magically come from anywhere. You have to build that. And one way to build that confidence is to have more transparency within your political system so that people can know what exactly is going on, and so that they can distinguish between those who do their job and those who don’t. Then we would have the information when elections come about to vote for and support those who are responsive and transparent, those who attend Congress, those who actually legislate and are not corrupt. That is the idea.
The team shares a common story here. I had years of experience working in NGOs related to poverty reduction and I wanted to learn more about the policy side so I moved to work with the government in order to understand how policies are designed, created and implemented. I worked for the government for a time and then I moved to the London School of Economics in order to have more of a theoretical and technical approach to what policy means, and to compare the design and implementation of policies.
I began to study issues of transparency, and while I did that I began to learn about different experiences when it comes to policies related to transparency. I also learned about the work that different NGOs were doing in this field. Of course Transparency International is the first example to come to mind, but also you began to see that a lot of movement was happening in civil society around improving transparency as a mechanism to improve democracy as a whole. And I found that idea very compelling to both study and work toward.
Though I am doing a Ph.D. I am not just an academic in terms of someone wanting to live in academia and teach and write papers. I come from the NGO side. I come from the policy side. I come from where the action is being developed. So I couldn’t study a Ph.D. without doing something active at the same time. That was my case, but it was also the case of Rodrigo Mobarec and other people that together started the Smart Citizen Foundation. We basically realized that in Chile there was a gap in terms of transparency policies and a need for an NGO to provide information related to politics and to exercise accountability. And, definitely, the use of technology was the right way to do it.
In Chile we are absolutely geeks and fans of technology. Fourteen percent of Chileans have a Facebook account. I don’t know that statistics about Twitter, but it also must be quite a big percentage. So people are using technology and we wanted to take that opportunity and use technology to promote our agenda - the transparency agenda and the accountability agenda.
We are providing additional channels. But it’s not the information doesn’t necessarily exist. That information- in terms of the accountability of Congress, for example - is out there. But sometimes to reach the records of a given committee you have to sometimes click eight or nine times and find a PDF where in the third paragraph of the 20th page you get some data that is particularly important. So what we do is get into that data and organize it in a very didactic way. We are creating new channels of existing information. We are cleaning up the information that is available. We don’t just give you the Excel sheets with all the data. We tell you, ‘look, there is some particularly relevant information for accountability in cell C-25’ so that you can make more informed decisions. We are organizing existing information for citizens.
That is the big question. Last year I had a conversation with a Chilean investigative journalist who published some of the main political scandals. Sometimes investigating these big political scandals takes months of research. You publish them and then you realize that two days later life continues as usual and the report didn’t make much of a difference.
Recently there was a big scandal in Chile of pharmacies coordinating on the prices of medications. It was a big scandal and everyone was complaining when it broke. But by the second day people just shopped again at the same stores and with the same companies that were part of the scandal.
I think that this is a big challenge for us in terms of what happens next. So if we get the data, and if we organize it, and if we build a good story with it, will citizens react to? Will it make a difference? Will it create a circle and then come back to Congress, and have an impact on elections? We still don’t have that problem solved. We just have the aim to do the job right and see what will happen. We will persevere with the goal that more transparency will lead to more accountability in the political system.
In Vota Inteligente we organized a transparency ranking of information that was published on the websites of the presidential candidates. We made a list of factors based on what items should be made available on their websites. Then we evaluated all of the websites of all of the candidates to see how much information they were publishing. We published the results, and they were all very bad. From zero to 100 the average for all the presidential candidates was between twenty and thirty percent. So we published this information and we worked with the media as well to show that there was a low level of information being made available by the presidential candidates in terms of policies, programs, participation, and also how much funding they are receiving and how they spend it.
We updated this ranking four times in total. And we saw an evolution from around 30% to nearly 80% regarding what information the presidential candidates made available. Since it was news they were concerned about providing more and more information through their websites. This was all fostered at first by the Vota Inteligente platform. As a result we got more information for citizens to use when deciding who they should vote for.
Maintaining the databases. Web development can also be a problem, but if you have good web developers who work well with graphic designers than it’s not so bad. But in our case when we have poor databases in Congress and we need to digitize a lot of documents and make our own databases, well that takes a lot of time.
It’s difficult. Not much of the information is available in digital format, in a sense that you can crawl and track the information. For much of this you have to look through PDF’s in a very tedious process. Actually, the Congress is a bit divergent in this case. So, the deputy’s chamber just uses PDFs, but the senate uses a digitized format that allows us to track what they publish.
We are looking forward to see what will happen in the future. Up until this point much of the focus on the website of Vota Inteligente has been on the presidential election. So you only have to track four candidates - and just two for this second round. But then when we track the senate it is going to be different. It’s still an issue and a challenge to come.
We mainly use Google Analytics as a way to see visits and to see where they come from. We also take a look at Facebook and Twitter in terms of followers, re-tweets, and so on. That information gives you an idea of the people you’re reaching. Many of the people that we want to reach are not online. So we also work with the media closely so that we can make the information we gather available so that it can be published in newspapers and seen on television so that people who don’t go online can use that information when it is time to vote. I think that is particularly important in Latin America because not that many people go online and we still have big gaps of inequality regarding who is online.
If you are really aiming to improve democracy and foster participation you have to, of course, take advantage of technology, but you cannot leave the mainstream media. You have to use those channels as well so that your information can be used by the majority of the people who don’t go online today.
I think that Vota Inteligente has fostered quite a bit of public participation, but also not as much as I would like. And I think it’s going to take more time. I distinguish different forms of participation on the website. One is to post information by leaving some comments and sending information through Twitter, Facebook and so on. In this part we have lots of people participating in Facebook and Twitter mainly. But, on the other hand, when it has to do with people exercising action through the applications that we have created, that’s a bit more difficult.
For example, there is an application called FixMyStreet that MySociety has and we adapted that to allow citizens to denounce wrongdoings in terms of publicity during political campaigns. So, for example, you wake up in your house and you realize that your wall has been painted by someone with the name of a particular candidate. Or if there are posters that are hanging on electricity poles that might be dangerous - which has been a problem over the last campaign - we created a program so that citizens can take a picture with their cell phone and report the issue through our website. That information is then posted on a map, and the application automatically sends an email to the municipality and to the candidate telling them, ‘look, this problem has been denounced, how do you respond?’ We had a whole tracking system that was very nice, but it wasn’t successful because we didn’t have enough people sending in this type of information.
I think that Chilean citizens today are incrementally getting used to technology as a mechanism to promote transparency, accountability, and social participation. Today it’s Twitter, it’s Facebook. Hopefully tomorrow it will be more interactive forms of participation through applications such as the ones that we created for this election.
Yes, definitely. We’ve had good communication. We approached those officials who were particularly keen about issues of transparency. First we approached those who promoted the Freedom of Information Act in Chile. Then we continued to approach those who had good ratings in Congress, such as those who regularly attended Congress and work hard in their committees and so on. Those people - and there are actually quite a few - are really interested in these types of projects. They are interested in distinguishing themselves from those who are not doing their job correctly. So we are in contact and they support us.
There are still some issues that we need to solve, however. For example the format of the information published by Congress.
There are quite a few laws that should be changed. Chile has had quite an advance over the past two years, especially with the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, which happened just in 2009. The problem is that the Freedom of Information Act - like in most countries around the world - doesn’t apply to Congress. So basically we cannot request information from Congress through the Freedom of Information law. So one thing that should be done is to reform the Freedom of Information law so that we can request information from Congress. That would be one thing to change. The second thing has to do with the funding and expenditures of political parties and the political campaign law. That is definitely something that we have to change. In Chile, currently, the law’s two main problems are first, at least 30% of the donations for political campaigns can be reserved so that the public doesn’t have access to who gave that amount of money. When you don’t have access to that you can’t identify interest groups and match interest groups with votes and policy to see how money has had an influence in the political sphere. The other thing is that the information that candidates provide in terms of campaign donations, is only given after the election takes place. Therefore, citizens cannot take that information into account when they make their voting decision.
Also in Chile we don’t have a lobby law. So we don’t have a record or registrar of the various actors of who are the players influencing the decisions of politicians, which gives you clues in terms of who and where to look for the influence of money in politics.
Definitely to organize and digitize documents and information. Of course we need operational funds in terms of organizing and preparing people and building teams. Also, money is needed to prepare web developers to get into transparency and accountability issues. But most of the money has to be spent to gather, organize, and disseminate the information. The main problem isn’t a problem of secrecy of Latin American governments; the problem is that social actors cannot get the information because we don’t know where it is, or because it’s badly organized. So if we really want to improve transparency, if we want to exercise political accountability, and if want to use technology to do it, then we need databases.
So, first money to build the databases, and also some money to organize teams to use those databases.
Beginning in March we will have the Vota Inteligente website available for information about the Congress. Today what is online is focused on the presidential election. We have been working over the past few months on the Congressional version, but it will only launch in March and still needs a lot of work. So that will keep us busy for 2010. But also from mid-2010 we will begin to prepare implementations of Vota Inteligente for the presidential elections in Argentina and Peru, which will be in 2011. So those are the main challenges for next year - Congress from March onwards and then preparing the implementations for Argentina and Peru.