Will technology lead to ‘Open Governance’ in our cities?

When “Swampy” was up a tree or down a tunnel dug in the path of the then new extension of the A30 highway in Devon, it was my friend Mark (that’s actually his real name!) who was helping to run the ‘Operation Centre’ from the dining room of a ‘pretty normal’ house in Exeter. Back then, without social media, smart phones and Freedom of Information acts, they had to ‘think on their feet’ and use their landline phones to communicate and share information.

Today in the Lab we introduced the topic of Open Governance because we are fascinated by the influence that new technology has on our communication and our decision-making processes.

In a panel discussion three speakers; Anke Domscheit-Berg, founder and director of opengov.me; Dieter Zinnbauer, Senior Program Manager of Emerging Policy Issues, Research and Knowledge Group at Transparency International; and Helmut K. Anheier, Professor of Sociology and Dean at the Hertie School of Governance, shared their views on Government 2.0 and Open Source Government and how it might change cities in the future.

Anke demands that public data (with the exception of personal private and national security data) should be available to everyone. Currently, according to Anke’s map, there are only 4 Open Data Portals in the whole of Australia. By contrast, countries such as the UK trust that state and local government data is correct and publish it for everyone and anyone to see, along with data from NGO’s – and if a number or figure is wrong they use the feedback service provided to obtain the correct number so that an amendment can be made.

The UK provides its citizens with information on Government spending, budget allocations and where taxes are spent (interestingly if you earn approximately GBP 60,000, 93p of your tax is spent on culture and 73p on the environment). In Germany, ‘Frag den Staat’ enables you to access Freedom of Information data in three easy internet clicks. Not only that, the platform also allows you to read all FOI responses and to see other people’s requests. ‘Copy and paste’ platforms including www.mysociety.org have increased transparency with tools including ‘Track your MP’s spending’, ‘FOI made easy’, ‘Fix My Street’ and “Reporting Transport Problems”. Furthermore many Governments now are required to publish the fee and contractors name of all public sector contracts awarded over a certain threshold.

Anke reinforced that data and its visualization helps citizens understand their local issues and empowers them to get involved. Visualization “Gives data and figures a voice” she said. An example, being noise exposure for alternative airport routes. The spreadsheets of data meant nothing to most people but a map showing the extent of the noise pollution empowered local residents to get involved in the planning process.

Dieter explained that corruption is a key influencer in many land use, environmental and climate change decision-making processes. He said that in the last 20 years there has been a increasing popularity for transparency and accountability and a desire to ensure that decision-makers are held accountable.

Dieter believes the following should happen:

  1. We should be provided with more information on what ought to happen – our rights, entitlements and terms of exchange
  2. We should be able to facilitate, track and monitor what is going on around us
  3. We should be provided with more information on how is responsible and how to complain

He said that a mandatory requirement for construction sites to publish their safety statistics, public art in Seoul highlighting which neighbourhoods have the greatest degree of pollution using light intensity and the “Know your rights’ graffiti in Brooklyn, New York were all a step in the right direction. According to Dieter the “How was my driving?” campaign stickers on the back of commercial and freight vehicles has decreased road crashes by 40%.

Helmut concluded the evening with a discussion on ‘Subterranean politics: swarm intelligence; occupy movements’. According to Helmut people want Governments to be decentralized, to be non-hierarchical and to be more transparent.  He said that the ‘typical’ occupy movement participant was male, 25-35 years of age and highly educated. Apparently the motivational factors for being involved in ‘occupying’ are

  • sensing an urgent need for change
  • a desire to participate and practice alternatives
  • believing that there is no adequate political representation
  • wanting a non-hierarchical and more transparent system

The conclusions/recommendations from the three speakers were:

  1. Ideally Open Government would be ‘top down’ with Open Data being used to create services for people
  2. Secrecy and corruption have a harder time in a digital democracy.
  3. Transparency is contagious
  4. Ordinary people who join forces, using technology, are a powerful counterpart in decision-making processes.

The Occupy Movements have shown us that it is possible to engage attention in physical and digital spaces simultaneously – the rest – well we will have to wait and see what happens…